Misinformation has acquired epidemic proportions. It has a new name: Infodemic.
Four Vs characterize it. Velocity, which is the speed with which misinformation travels. Volume, which is the sheer size of it. Variety, which is the form and shape it takes, whether textual or visual. And, finally, veracity, which is the truth quotient in it.
Misinformation has become so troublesome that both the World Health Organisation (WHO) and United Nations have had to respond to it. In May 2020 at the WHO’s Seventy-Third World Health Assembly, countries drafted a resolution asking members nations to “provide the population with reliable and comprehensive information on COVID-19 and the measures taken by authorities in response to the pandemic, and take measures to counter misinformation and disinformation as well as malicious cyber activities.”
At United Nations, the Secretary-General Antonio Guterres launched Verified, which will create a cadre of “digital first responders” to increase the volume and reach of trusted, accurate information surrounding COVID-19. He said at the launch, “Misinformation spreads online, in messaging apps and person to person. Its creators use savvy production and distribution methods. To counter it, scientists and institutions like the United Nations need to reach people with accurate information they can trust”. He then added gravely, “We cannot cede our virtual spaces to those who traffic in lies, fear and hate.”
Broadly speaking, we witness three categories of lies or misinformation during COVID-19 outbreak. The first and, perhaps, the largest is about cure. No nation is free of it. The category comprises of three mutually overlapping strands. The first harks back to traditional medicine. TCM – traditional Chinese medicine is a good example of it. The Chinese government lists the use of bile extracted from the gall bladders of captive Asiatic black bears as one ingredient in TCM drugs as treatment for critical coronavirus cases. In India, some organisations organised cow urine party as an antidote for COVID-19 and hailed the drink as a ‘miracle elixir’. Scientists have expressed their disapproval of such ‘remedies’.
The second strand, overlapping the first, comprises of traditional practices such as consumption of hot water, bathing with it, exposing the body to sunshine, eating garlic, ginger, drinking lemon juice, etc. The Ministry of AYUSH issued an advisory promoting some of these immunity-boosting measures for “self-care during COVID-19 crises” with a rider that the “advisory does not claim to be treatment for COVID-19”. To clarify, the Ayurveda prescription raises your innate immunity, not acquired immunity, which is the immunity that fights the COVID-19 virus.
The third strand of cure is based on some obtuse logic. An assortment of people ranging from TV evangelist to ‘doctors’ to politicians employ this with their faithful. A US televangelist promoted colloidal silver (silver suspended in water) promising that it kills some strains of coronavirus within 12 hours.
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A Japanese doctor claimed that drinking water every 15 minutes washes down into the stomach any virus that has entered through the mouth. There the acid does its job. The Arabic version of doctor’s advice was shared more than two lakh times.
Another You Tuber with a large following bragged on digital platforms that a ‘miracle mineral supplement (MMS) can wipe out coronavirus”. The MMS is nothing else but chlorine dioxide, a bleaching agent. In Russia, the same bleaching agent is being worn as protective badge. Some of the more creative badges feature a white cross design on it to ‘ward off’ the evil virus.
This is how it works: Simpler the logic the easier it is to accept it. A post asked people to hold their breath without coughing for 10 seconds. If they failed to do so, then it showed that they had coronavirus. The scientists also challenged (and warned) each of these assertions.
Conspiracy theories embody the second category of misinformation. Although championed by a rather small group of experts, its impact is devastating. A recent example in the context of COVID-19 is the video, Plandemic. A combination of two words, Plandemic claims that COVID-19 is a planned epidemic, implying that the virus was manipulated in a laboratory. In the video, the interviewee, a Judy Merkovitz, a medical researcher with a chequered history, says, “If you ever had a flu vaccine, you were injected with coronavirus.” Scientists and public health experts have debunked several of the claims made in the video. However, this hasn’t stopped millions of viewers from watching it.
The third category of misinformation results when high-profile people with no public health expertise make pronouncements about the disease. When such people occupy top political positions, the problem becomes more acute. This has happened with COVID-19. President Trump endorsed the use of Hydroxychloroquine (HCQ) on television when his country’s doctors and scientists warned against its use. President Bolsonaro of Brazil refuses to acknowledge the coronavirus threat. He dismissed it as a ‘little cold’. Brazil now has the second-highest number of cases in the world and the fourth-highest death toll after US, UK, and Italy.
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Both WHO and UN have a challenge on their hand. It would be difficult for them to match the 4Vs of misinformation not because of anything they lack but because of what they deal with. Scientific knowledge is a product of a slow, grinding process; it takes time to evolve; its language is sanitized of any emotional content and its metaphors lack the seductive appeal that peddlers of misinformation employ.
Pradeep Krishnatray is former director, Research and Strategic Planning, Johns Hopkins Center for Communication Programs, New Delhi
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