Updated: Jun 18
On 31st December 2019, the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission, China, reported a cluster of cases of pneumonia in their province. Since then, there has been a rapid spread of a formidable adversary of mankind. Soon it reached every corner of the world. No, I’m not referring to the over 5 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 worldwide. This far more widespread attack referred here has affected all 7.8 billion people on earth. We are all victims of an “infodemic”.
Cuan-Baltazar et al (2020)1 conducted a study to evaluate the most frequently visited websites on Google when search words, ‘COVID’ and ‘Wuhan’ were used. Using validated quality assessment tools like HONcode, JAMA benchmarks and DISCERN tool it was found that out of 110 websites, only 2 websites were validated with the HONcode seal, 43 websites did not meet the JAMA benchmark, and 70% had a low DISCERN score. All in all, the study indicated that a large amount of information that you find on Google directed websites is not reliable. Experts suggest that it is impossible to measure the amount of misinformation being circulated at any given time, but they are sure that more than 75% of the information is fake.
This becomes a matter of concern due to two factors. Firstly, according to PEW research studies2, people are increasingly depending on internet and social media for news, sometimes even more than print media. This increases the need for this news to be valid and authentic. The second problem that arises is that the internet is being used for diagnosis of illnesses (especially of COVID itself). Experts have speculated that cyberchondria or Doctor Google phenomenon is likely to exacerbate due to social distancing. As we all may know, internet self-diagnosis is rarely accurate and has a tendency to be exaggerated. This causes anxiety.
Where this misinformation comes from and what are the intentions of the perpetrators are difficult questions to answer. However, experts venture that the spread of the misinformation is primarily because there are large gaps in knowledge of diseases such as COVID 19. With little knowledge about how it transmits, where it has come from and what we can do to stop it, people tend to turn to less than legitimate sources to gain some sense of control in their lives. Keeping that in mind, it is important to realise the impact that this misinformation is having on each one of us. This misinformation virus is insidious and hazardous. The effects themselves are not easily distinguishable from everyday stresses but it strikes at the three pillars that support the Anti COVID battle- Personal Mental Health, Public Trust and Community Mental Health. Let’s try to consider some of the common influences.
Think about the last few times you’ve scrolled through your social media. There is always some information about the pandemic. Consider how you felt when you read this; anxious? Panicked? Scared? This is because of a number of factors. Fake news or misinformation inherently is scandalising or emotional. They have shocking headlines and drastic claims (Think about headlines like “Breaking News!” and “Shocking!”). This is what ensures that they are shared amongst social circles. At the same time, it has a tendency to make you feel overwhelmed and helpless.
The problem doesn’t stop at a few pieces of information. The infodemic has truly earned its name with a barrage of information spreading at a rapid rate where lines between opinion and fact blur. Should you believe the article about a homeopathic medicine on Whatsapp? Will the virus die out when the temperature rises? How long can I potentially not show symptoms and still spread the virus? Often, questions have varying answers with no proper resolution of conflicting opinions. Repeated instances of this lead to two things. First, a sense of fatigue. This was seen in situations where information warfare was being used. For example, in the 2016 US elections, there was so much breaking news, with very little evidence to back their claims. Citizens reported feeling tired when new headlines kept popping up. Second this leads to a debate within and between us. We may agree with one side of the story, often leading to a distressing debate with those who disagree with it or develop a nihilistic stance, (“I won’t trust anything/anyone.”) followed by a feeling of complete helplessness. And so, the first pillar of personal mental health crashes to the ground.
Conflicting and often changing versions confuse us and this is exactly what the virus of misinformation preys on to survive. Myths, home remedies and conspiracy theories all have the potential to create a public mistrust of the state and health organisations. Apart from the obvious coordination and reliance issues associated with this, a person who is unable to rely on his/her/their administration during a crises creates angst. If you do not trust a governing body as a source, there are too many opinions with no one opinion ever able to legitimise itself. As the vicious cycle goes, this harms our mental health more. Through this, the virus tears through our public trust of the system.
We must keep in mind that the above only cover the direct impacts of the misinformation. There are many other casualties of this information warfare. Allegations surrounding COVID 19 and its growth have struck minority communities and people from particular races. In the international arena, allegations against the Chinese government have not only lead to xenophobia but also breaks in trade. Furthermore, the xenophobia has generalised to anyone resembling a citizen of China. At a national level, particular religions have become the target of various conspiracy theories and fake news. This kind of attack harms not just personal mental health but mental health of an entire community. With this strike, the already fragile pillar of community mental health is knocked down.
Larger health organisations, social media companies and governments have taken various steps to try to mitigate misinformation from social media. However, these steps cannot make a difference unless we take responsibility as individuals. When you share any information, it must be your moral obligation to ensure that it is credible. Many ministers have even suggested social media distancing as a solution. Although this might be a little extreme for a lot of us, the principle is that we must endeavour to do our own research and gain our own information about the current crises. It is important for us to access official websites like those of governments and international organisations to find factual information. But, more importantly, we must ensure that this infodemic does not damage our mental health or translate into harming a community and that while still being critical, we must maintain minimal trust in administrative bodies. We are going through a very difficult time, but the key to winning this battle is simple. The choice lies in our hands. Stay informed and choose wisely.
By – Josika Mahindru Feature image by – Brijesh Kumar
References/ Read More At –
1Cuan-Baltazar JY, Muñoz-Perez MJ, Robledo-Vega C, Pérez-Zepeda MF, Soto-Vega E. Misinformation of COVID-19 on the Internet Infodemiology Study 2020