Opinion The Hope Issue

Misinformation in the time of Corona

This crisis paves the way for word-of-mouth rumors and speculation to spread like wildfire.

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By Ghanem Rafeh

With the rapid proliferation of social media outlets and messaging apps, more people are turning to social media as their primary source of news due to its practicality and convenience, and although these tools give us easy access to different news sources, they run the risk of spreading and exposing us to misinformation.

The Covid-19 pandemic that has plunged the world into a state of emergency has offered fake news and misinformation a ripe ground to spread in. Every other social media post I see or message I receive is something related to the virus, ranging from news articles and advice pieces to general discussions and memes. In the content I receive, fake news stories and dangerous advice about Covid-19 are bound to filter through. They range from the somewhat plausible, such as how getting a seasonal flu vaccine can help you fight the virus, to mystical theories about the healing properties of bukhoor (a type of incense used in the Gulf States) being able to kill Covid-19, in addition to wild conspiracy theories about the origins of the virus.

This crisis paves the way for word-of-mouth rumors and speculation to spread like wildfire. Everyone knows of a “friend of a friend” that has been infected with the virus. Rumors have also spread from unverified sources about what measures  governments are going to take to limit the spread of Covid-19. Like the virus, these rumors spread from individual to individual, with the original message being distorted in a twisted game of “Broken Telephone”.

With the different types of messages being shared, some of the most vital (and at times most dangerous) ones are the ones being shared by “influencers” and online celebrities. With a large base of followers, influencers’ messages are amplified and shared much more than the average users’ messages. You have cases where influencers send positive messages and offer good advice, but on the other hand, there are cases of influencers sharing superficially sound, but dangerous messages. In spite of what some people may have seen, and potentially believed, it has yet to be proven that drinking water will “push the virus down to your stomach and allow it to become digested.”

The effect of the spread of misinformation falls under two extremes. On the one hand, these messages can cause people to go into a state of panic and act erratically. Haunting videos and pictures of empty supermarket shelves and people stocking up and hoarding vital goods in different parts of the globe are an indicator of what panic does to people, with many forgetting basic human decency and reverting to an animalistic form of survival. On the opposite extreme, misinformation can cause people to downplay the severity of the virus. Some people carelessly claim that “the seasonal flu is more deadly” or “it only affects the elderly and sick”. This view downplays how serious the spread of the virus is, which in some cases leads people to act recklessly, and it is exactly the type of behavior that contributes to the rapid spread of the virus.

With all the information that we digest on a daily basis, misinformation and fake news is bound to slip through the cracks, and some of us unknowingly and unwillingly share and help propagate false narratives. Some governments have cracked down on individuals caught creating or spreading fake news, while some social media firms are allowing users to flag content they believe is false to be fact checked.However, there is only so much that institutions can do without the aid of regular users and citizens, and ultimately, the responsibility falls on us to stop the spread of misinformation.

In terms of the quality of information we receive, whether it’s a new story or piece of advice, one of the first steps we can take is to ensure that we are receiving adequate information from official local and international channels.

There are steps one can take with regard to information received from unofficial channels, such as word-of-mouth news, unverified social media accounts or forwarded messages. When faced with these types of information, one should take an approach of careful skepticism, and take the news with a grain of salt, until they receive further confirmation of the news from official channels.

Finally, and most importantly, we are incredibly lucky to live in an age of information, where data is readily available at a moment’s notice in the palm of your hand. Everyone should take the time to understand Covid-19 and read up on essential information about the virus, while dispelling some of the myths surrounding it. Additionally, when faced with a new piece of information from an unverified source, a quick Google search can help verify or refute the news you just received.  Fact checking and being media literate are important skills to have, not just in times of crises, but as an exercise that should be carried on to become a part of everyday life.

The world still has a long way to go in terms of our fight against Covid-19, and it will undoubtedly leave a long lasting effect on many aspects of our everyday lives, such as how we view the news. And although we may not face another crisis of equal magnitude in our lifetime (thankfully), identifying misinformation and fake news is a valuable critical thinking skill that we can benefit from in a “post-Corona” world, and impart on future generations.

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Ghanem Rafeh is a Lebanese-Emirati political researcher based in Abu Dhabi. He is a graduate of political science from Beirut. He is passionate about international relations, politics and history.

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