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September 16, 2020

The Infodemic That’s Upon Us

topic: Digital Rights
tags: #COVID-19 coronavirus, #Op Ed, #human rights, #democracy
by: Shelby Wilder

In February 2020, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organization, stated, “We're not just fighting an epidemic; we're fighting an infodemic.”

While citizens across the globe are acutely aware of humanity’s rapid, ongoing battle against the novel coronavirus, most are not conscious of or informed on this crucial issue. 

Infodemics are evidenced by an excessive amount of information on an issue - successfully overloading our digital platforms while sowing confusion and division, making it difficult to identify the truth and determine a trustworthy source when it’s needed most. Similar to COVID-19, false reports spread faster than factual news, quickly extending beyond borders to become a universal threat. 

Who is to blame for the recent rise in false information and the ensuing infodemic? There is a combination of players: individuals sharing material that, unbeknownst to them, is incorrect (misinformation), those disseminating information that they are aware is fake (disinformation), and people who create inaccurate information with the intention of causing harm (malinformation). 

The pandemic created a perfect storm, with people confined at home with heightened anxiety, turning to the internet in search of answers. But the public has not been equipped with digital literacy skills that can identify and filter out bogus information. By nature, our brains’ first involuntary movement is to process what we encounter as true rather than comprehend it as fictitious. When our ancestors were informed of a potential threat from others, they tended to believe what they were told out of the necessity to survive.

It is not humans’ fault, given that our brains evolved over time, making us both gullible and stubborn. It’s vital that governments embrace a re-education across generations to inform citizens of what it fundamentally means and what the consequences are of sharing information online, and establish that assuming a position of skepticism is the safest way forward. 

Admittedly, the public cannot be left solely with the daunting task of fact checking. It must be a global effort with responsibility falling to governments, tech companies, media outlets, NGOs, and so forth. This ambitious goal, however, could appear naive when reflecting on recent events. As world leaders were presented with the opportunity to join together in unity in the face of an unprecedented issue, such as a global pandemic, instead of sharing critical data and vital resources they reverted to isolationism, closed their borders, with each country putting itself first. The same issue remains prevalent in the race to develop a vaccine. 

Policy must be implemented to ensure that media outlets and tech companies agree to fundamental notions such as fact-checking guidelines with third party oversight – an approach that in itself would need supervision from bodies such as Science Feedback, a non-profit organization on the front lines in the crusade against spurious information. Facebook recently partnered with the group, allowing them to be an independent fact-checking system to flag dubious claims. 

Emeric Henry, Associate Professor in the Sciences Po Department of Economics, stated that “In order to slow down the spread of false information we need to change the way people share, providing more control over regulating speed and virality.” To achieve this, Henry says we need to “design tools to reduce the amount of sharing.” Creating simple additional steps, such as notifications informing people that they’re about to share untrue or misleading posts or making individuals click a box confirming that they want to publish unreliable statements proved in recent studies to reduce sharing by more than 25 per cent. 

It must be noted that this is not the same as removing a post or hiding material entirely, as that has also proven to create adverse effects, such as vindicating conspiracy theorists’ beliefs and stoking heated debates on censorship. That said, evidently harmful information or fabricated rumors should be removed regardless, as should the rampant allegations surrounding the coronavirus, which proved detrimental to public health efforts and undermined human rights protections and democracies, especially in developing countries

At this critical point, we need clarity and action. Policy implementation poses difficult decisions for ordinary citizens and governments – from protecting public health to ensuring free speech. However, in a time when the transmission of information is so free-flowing and largely unchecked, we are losing crucial ground. 

Shelby Wilder is a freelance journalist and filmmaker.

The production of this investigation was supported by a grant from the IJ4EU fund.

Image: Picturepest