A proactive response needed to the Coronavirus infodemic

Sukriti Baveja | Updated on September 11, 2020

An expert team can be a nodal point to cross-check health information

The coronavirus was reported by China on December 31, 2019. The World Health Organization (WHO) declared it a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC) on January 30, 2020, and later, a pandemic on March 11, 2020. As the pandemic spread, it fuelled panic, with a rising demand for information regarding the disease. Social media became a ubiquitous source of information and discussions, which disseminated information regardless of source or authenticity.

The deluge of information proved to be a double-edged sword, both helping and harming. “We are not just fighting an epidemic; we’re fighting an infodemic,” said WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. Infodemic is an over-abundance of information — some accurate and some not — which makes it hard for people to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance when they need it.

However, one failed to fathom the need for people to post unverified messages and videos mindlessly. What drove them, even those educated and aware, to do it? Some of the reasons are embedded in the psyche. For many, it is an attempt at seeking validation and upping self-esteem, which increases in proportion to the number of ‘likes’ or responses received by their posts and tweets or a ‘feel good factor’, which they experience from passing on cautionary messages or remedies during an epidemic, which gives a sense of ‘doing good’.

Of course, one cannot rule out the publicity angle that makes our film stars and politicians jump into the fray and start posting videos and messages that are not always backed by evidence. A small subset also do it for the ‘high’ they get out of shocking people with gory videos or frightening statistics.

However, not all motives are ulterior as both the poor and elite alike, subconsciously, feel helpless against the march of a pandemic. Passing on messages conveying caution, advice, remedies, news of drugs or vaccines, makes them believe that they are somehow ‘doing something’ about the pandemic, giving them a certain comforting sense of control.

Also, ‘a trouble shared is a trouble halved’. Sharing of disconcerting messages or troubling videos can give some a sense of comfort. Of course, there are a lot of people who do it out of pure concern, with universal well-being their only motive Finally, there is a set of people who compulsively post on social media unmindful of the authenticity of a post or its effect on the receiver.

In today’s connected world it will be wise to realise and remember that ‘WhatsApp is a weapon and only a few wield it wisely’. This reality is not fully understood, going by the social media Infodemic.

Structured response needed

Fake news and misinformation regarding miracle cures, ‘mantras’, vaccines, etc., had gone ‘viral’ on social media in India even before the number of cases reached the three-figure mark. This Infodemic was also partly instrumental in disrupting the Indian economy, spreading panic, causing food shortages and for black marketing of medicines and PPE (personal protective equipment).

At places it portrayed civic administration in poor light for its failure to contain the pandemic in spite of the administration`s best efforts with the limited resources available. The Infodemic in general also has the potential to cause chaos, destabilise governments, turn the sentiments against a friendly country by blaming it for the pandemic and target a particular community, blaming it for spreading the infection, causing religious disharmony.

More harm than good has been done by the unregulated social media. A swifter response is required from the administration to prevent spread of rumours and misinformation that causes an avoidable panic in the populace. A questionnaire-based survey carried out by the author amongst the educated class of people, including doctors and civil servants, revealed that 99.4 per cent had received coronavirus-related messages on social media, 85 per cent had found them disturbing or scary, 51 per cent had not received any sort of health education messages from official sites like WHO or the Health Ministry, 45 per cent forwarded unverified messages, and nearly 50 per cent didn’t even know how to verify the authenticity of a message or a video received.

The dissemination of pandemic-related information thus requires a more structured early response and not a late knee-jerk reaction. In the event of future health emergencies or a pandemic, a Health Ministry-nominated expert team should start an Information, Education and Communication campaign on social media on declaration of PHEIC by WHO, and not wait till a pandemic is declared later.

Such a committee should continuously monitor the unsubstantiated statistics, remedies, medical news, videos, etc., doing the rounds on social media and issue correct information in response. Responsible citizens can then forward the `suspect` messages to this monitoring team and thereby serve as its eyes and ears. Citizens need to be made aware of what is ‘not acceptable’ on social media and penalties need to be imposed for violations. The lessons from strict lockdown in Wuhan show that sometimes greater public good has to supersede the rights of individuals, in this case the right to (indiscriminately) forward information during a pandemic.


The author is a Dermatologist and Brigadier with the Indian Army. Views are personal

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Published on September 11, 2020
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