SARS-CoV-2, the new coronavirus is causing a pandemic that is crippling the world. But there is another, equally deadly, virus that is infecting large sections of the population: the disinformation virus. We are facing what WHO has called an “infodemic”; that is, the uncontrolled and very rapid dissemination of false information through social media.
We are witnessing a massive wave of false or distorted information the purpose of which is to increase uncertainty and heighten people's anxiety. There is false news, misleading memes, alarmist and biased videos based on “alternative facts”, which circulate without control and become viral, while the fast pace of the news cycle on Covid-19 makes it impossible for false or harmful information to be denied.
The problem is such that even WhatsApp has had to announce this week that it will limit the flow of messages – messages can only be forwarded to a single chat to prevent the spread of misinformation from continuing to cause havoc.
But this is not a new phenomenon. With the arrival of the internet, a utopia was created where everyone could have access to all available information in a virtuous circle that would make citizens better informed than ever before.
However, not all citizens have access to the Internet, nor are all sources of information accurate and reliable. Quite the reverse. So, the Internet has also become a place where conspiracy theories proliferate as never before and are amplified at will. Some beliefs, such as anti-vaccine militance or climate change denial, have found the perfect ally in search engines and social media, which echo these theories and fake information in a toxic and exponential way, infecting the public just like the virus.
For some years now, some particular groups, hostile to the general interest, together with religious or extreme right-wing groups, have found an ideal ally in social media for their campaigns, based in misinformation. Some governments have also used them to advance their political agenda, as with Putin's Russia.
Generating confusion, disapproval and disgust is effective in promoting biased agendas, as it creates a strong emotional response
Often, they seek to spread information that will divide the population and generate confusion. These campaigns do not try to change people's opinions, but rather reaffirm them. They seek to reinforce their biased beliefs, increase controversy and confrontation between different views, whilst putting the truth and lies on the same level.
In doing so, they reaffirm their own beliefs, even when they are very distant to the truth. The truth does not matter. What they look to increase is resentment against those who hold different ideas.
Generating confusion, disapproval and disgust is effective in promoting biased agendas, as it creates a strong emotional response which can be deliberately manipulated to promote social disorder and justify authoritarian reactions to open and informed debate, which is crucial to the proper functioning of liberal democracies.
But these groups are inclined to conspiracy theories, many of them are extreme right-wing activists and they have no qualms about disqualifying scientific knowledge. They have their own scientists, their own journals, their own experts, and they manage to make untested and marginal opinions jump out of their niche by spreading them on social media. Eventually ,they form part of mainstream media and the objective narrative, can end up triggering violent or irrational reactions, or shaping the political agenda.
Conspiracy theories and the coronavirus
The widespread online conspiracy theory, which links the launch of the 5G data system to the spread of the coronavirus, is completely false but has led, for example, to several 5G broadcast towers being set on fire in the UK.
The fact that the Chinese city of Wuhan had recently deployed the 5G network has nothing to do with the fact that this was where the first outbreak of the new strain of coronavirus took place. Multiple theories have circulated on Facebook, Twitter, TikTok, Youtube , or WhatsApp and Telegram groups about the origin of the virus: that it was created by Bill Gate in a Microsoft lab part of a globalized strategy to decimate the world's population, that it was designed by the Chinese government as a biological weapon to undermine the US hegemony, that it was created by the CIA as part of a hybrid war between the US and China… all of these are fake.
Generating mistrust and suspicion of official information sources is one of the strategies of misinformation.
What science is currently discovering (and we know that science is only putting forward theories that are repeatably empirically proven until some other empirical evidence manages to disprove them) is that he SARS-CoV-2 virus is a mutation of a virus commonly found in bats, and that it was probably transmitted to humans via a species of armadillo called a pangolin.
Generating mistrust and suspicion of official information sources is one of the strategies of misinformation. When we see President Trump threaten to cut off funds to the World Health Organization at the height of the pandemic, having accused them waking up too late to COVID-19 and of being pro-China, he is discrediting the only multilateral body for global health governance, leaving us all in the worst possible situation at this critical moment.
To resort, as Trump himself does -, applauded by Bolsonaro - to the fact that there is already a miracle drug that cures the virus, hydroxychloroquine, which has been promoted by a French doctor who is known for his unorthodox methods while this drug is still at the experimental stage and has not been approved as a treatment by any official body, is irresponsible – similar to his denial of climate change. And with the same enormous irresponsibility, the erratic and confused behaviour of Bolsonaro, another right-winger, has recently attacked his own health minister in reaction to the urgent measures needed to contain the epidemic in Brazil.
This false information generates market speculation, confusion and false hopes, which can have deadly consequences by potentially relaxing the population in response to non-pharmaceutical measures such as population containment, which do work to contain the pandemic, as is being demonstrated in Asia or Southern Europe.
The “infodemic” is already a global epidemic. And in order to fight it, it is essential to have accurate information, both from the major traditional newspapers and from independent online platforms with proven quality, to which people can turn to in order to be accurately informed, and where they can go to check that the information they are getting is properly verified. The role of these media outlets is crucial in the fight against the pandemic, and many of these platforms offer fact-checking spaces that are essential for denying rumours and fake news.
But also, this is a great opportunity to develop intellectual skills given that half the world’s population is confined to their homes. This way people can discern for themselves the quality and reliability of the information that reaches them.
Only by turning to reliable sources, developing a critical mind and paying attention to one's our common-sense capacities, will we be able to defend ourselves from
Avoiding the obsession of being constantly informed, which can generate anxiety and instability, is important. But it is also important that, when faced with any questionable information, that we all ask ourselves some questions: is the source reliable? (check what or who is behind that source); what is the background; does the information source have their own agenda or does it present plural and contrasting information; what evidence do they present beyond its own opinion; to what extent does that information have a strong emotional bias, is it inflammatory and does it use divisive language; do it use sensationalist images to illustrate their arguments?
Only by turning to reliable sources, developing a critical mind and paying attention to one's our common-sense capacities, will we be able to defend ourselves from WhatsApp messages that are credible, and perhaps strongly reinforce previous convictions, but in fact may not be true.
We should bear in mind the recommendations of the United Nations, the European Union and governments not to indiscriminately spread information that comes from untested third parties and that invokes anxiety, mistrust, frustration or anger among the population.
This misinformation virus is so much more dangerous than the coronavirus and just as the public is acting responsibly and in accordance with lockdown measures, we must be aware that we don’t become a vehicle for the spreading of fake information.
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