Coronavirus: Keeping the “Infodemic” in Check

The Coronavirus is at the top of the news agenda around the world.

By: Eline Jeanne

The Coronavirus is at the top of the news agenda around the world.

First, it was images from China of apocalyptic scenes from overrun hospitals across the Wuhan province—news that the government desperately tried to cover up. Then the news that the virus had spread to South Korea, Iran and Italy. Now, Italy is on lock-down, the infection rate is growing by exponential proportions worldwide, with border closures and demands to self-isolate in order to contain the deadly disease.

But as the coronavirus spreads, another pandemic accompanies it: misinformation. Social media is inundated with conspiracy theories of where the virus comes from (a biological weapon created by the Chinese government? Bats?) and miracle cures, ranging from chewing garlic, to spraying chlorine all over your body. Amazon has already had to quietly remove several self-published manuals of unverified information promising cures for the pandemic that until now has no cure.

But while some are adept at spotting conspiracy theories, not everyone is versed enough in media and information literacy techniques to discern quality journalism from unverified rumors and bogus cures. At best, some of these can become funny memes that help us deal with the gravity of the virus. At worst, it influences social media users to take ineffective—or even dangerous—measures against the virus, and others to spread unneeded racism and xenophobia. 

“We’re not just fighting an epidemic; we’re fighting an infodemic,” said World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. An infodemic, according to the WHO, is “an over-abundance of information—some accurate and some not—that makes it hard for people to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance when they need it.” Since then, the WHO has set up a dedicated website dispelling certain myths surrounding the Coronavirus, encouraging others to spread only information that has been vetted and verified by their staff.  

Can everyday civilians fight an infodemic? The key lies with the consumers, and how they cultivate their own media and information literacy, and use these skills to spread information as responsibly as possible. With the help of a few media and information literacy (MIL) education tactics–which can be as simple as looking up sources to verify a questionable fact, to as technical as learning to use online tools to verify videos and images–we can empower people to interpret and make informed judgements on news articles or social media posts, and cultivate a culture that critically analyses information instead of accepting it as fact. A few questions to start off with include asking: where did the information originate? Why is the information being spread? Can I verify this information? These are all important questions to ask when taking in new information, particularly with a constantly evolving story like the coronavirus pandemic

There are some quick ways we can double-check information we find on the virus. Writing for First Draft, Laura Garcia shares how verifying images with reverse image search and using geolocation markers on videos can help us swiftly identify pieces of misinformation. “Just as we all have a role to play in stopping the spread of the real virus, we also have a responsibility to not share false information with our friends and family, creating unnecessary worry or panic,” Garcia writes. Oftentimes fake news is created to spark a reaction, in this case one of fear, which makes it tempting to share further. It is precisely for this reason that we need to take a step back and assess the information before taking any action. 

Just as consumers play a vital role in the fight against a Coronavirus infodemic, so does the media. Responsible reporting is of the utmost importance, and sensationalist reporting will only create an unhelpful atmosphere of panic. Speaking to Amruta Byatna for Global Investigative Journalism Network (GIJN), veteran health journalist Thomas Abraham discusses the of role investigative journalists, and how they should navigate Coronavirus reporting: “One big mistake to avoid is jumping to conclusions. Don’t be in a hurry. Spend more time in understanding the basics. Find the right people to talk to —  a lot of people who haven’t done such health reporting will talk to any medical person, such as a doctor. Most medical people are so specialized now that you could end up talking to someone who doesn’t know much about infectious diseases. How do you find the right people? A lot of real-time science is coming out —  so it’s easy to know who the people are. ”

It is safe to assume that the Coronavirus will continue to take up significant space in the media ecosystem. As celebrities and even world leaders are starting to be diagnosed with the virus, it has become clear that it does not discriminate and has the potential to infect almost everyone. But while it is important to know as much as possible, it is also important to know what information is false or not necessary, keeping panic in check among our online and offline communities so those around us can be as prepared with accurate and helpful information as possible.