An “important” scientific report hinted that the COVID-19 was not a natural event, but it was created by Chinese scientists, purposely. What “started as an accident” in a lab in China, has now led to becoming an unfortunate global pandemic. The conspiracy theorists have chosen to blame game, misinformation, and finger-pointing.
So, is this man-made or natural? The truth shall surface, someday. But, first of all, let’s understand the details about ‘infodemic’
What is the COVID-19 Infodemic?
Truth be told, the rise of a pandemic is as complex as studying the mind. Its time consuming, requires logic, reasoning, and much more. Managing the pandemic misinformation effects are a ‘new problem’ of the ‘new normal’ world. Because the disease is global, everyone is looking for a new piece of information online.
In the first few months of 2020, conspiracies about a rich American businessman (B. G.) started filling the headlines. Some of the top newspapers including BBC & USA Today quoted; he funded the control of virus with vaccines, treatments, and technology. Some said, he created it. I went nuts when the other news bit said, he patented it. Is this theory even possible?
I turned to science and technology for an answer. The Wuhan Institute of Virology sampled 16,000+ bats that showed traces of coronavirus carried by horseshoe bats. Another media claimed that the COVID-19 virus is “engineered”. Conspiracies don’t end here.
An internet conspiracy theory linked the spread of the coronavirus to a wireless technology known as 5G. This theory gained many believers in Facebook groups, WhatsApp messages, and YouTube videos.
The New York Times found 487 Facebook communities, 84 Instagram accounts, 52 Twitter accounts, and other posts and videos riding in the wave of misinformation effects.
Unfortunately, these logics will not stop conspiracy theorists. The power of the internet produces fears which defeat logic and reasoning. Our mind gets drawn to most unusual claims, doesn’t it?
Is the Pandemic a Political Scam?
“There are organised scams, too. More than 68,000 website domains have been registered this year with keywords associated with the coronavirus,” says Joan Donovan, a sociologist at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. One study says that a “hate multiverse” is helping the COVID-19 pandemic to spread racism. Blaming Jews and immigrants on starting or spreading the virus to control population growth is beyond belief.
What are Highways of Hate?
Created by a team of researchers, highways of hate is the first mapping model to track how hate spreads and adapts online. These pictures grabs will tell us how COVID-19, which started on the 4chan forum in December, spread to social media. Platforms like Gab, Telegram, and Facebook are all connected.
These are called ‘wormhole’ links. An online network of spreading hate and pushing audiences towards hateful views. “We’re seeing some unusual alliances coming together,” Donovan says. She’s hinting towards the alliances of the US-based power groups, leading activists from Taiwan and Hong Kong along with the United Nation’s largest health agency.
The Dangerous Spread of the Misinformation Effects.
An American cable news channel has been under the limelight for spreading dangerous misinformation. They aired a segment which disclosed the benefits of an old malaria drug, called Chloroquine. It was described as the potential antivirus medicine for COVID-19. Political giants claimed it to be ‘very powerful’ without any solid proof.
In a social media post, a South-American country’s President falsely claimed that hydroxychloroquine is a treatment for COVID-19. It was stopped then from spreading like a forest fire. What next? The search on Google increased multi-fold.
“Just like toilet paper, masks, and hand sanitizer, if there was a product to be had, it would have sold out,” says Donovan.
And, she said it. This is how misinformation effects gain trust which costs our sanity.
Furthermore, multiple scientists studying the COVID-19 pandemic said that the virus originated in bats. Their homes being the border of Yunnan province in China, Myanmar, Laos, and Vietnam, says The Guardian.
This reminds me of the time when HIV was an ‘epidemic’. Conspiracy theories, rumours, and misinformation effects ruled people’s minds then, and the after-effects are still visible.
Our society is beginning to feel the misinformation effects. Over the last couple of months, posts from the World Health Organization (WHO) and the US Center for Disease Control (CDC) have achieved several hundred thousand engagements, by conspiracy theory sites, with a total reach of 52 million.
What’s the Plan to Flatten the Curve of Infodemic?
Social media platforms are guiding people to trust only reliable sources. Facebook, Google, Twitter, YouTube, LinkedIn, Reddit, and Microsoft issued a joint statement on ‘combatting fraud misinformation about the virus.’ YouTube now has only ‘verified’ information videos on COVID-19. Facebook and Google have banned ‘miracle cures’ advertisements.
Surprisingly, 88 global media organisations joined in to record their fact-checks of COVID-19 claims. I strongly feel it’s becoming a ‘fact-checking frenzy’ zone. At the end of the day, how much of it can we fact check?
One such time when Facebook called out a fake article that 21 million people had died of COVID-19 in China. It was too late before they placed a warning on the link. It was later shared 118,000 times. A version on an archived site still remains. It reached 1.6 million interactions and 310,000 shares on Facebook. It’s still growing as I write.
These trails of misinformation effects leading to an even bigger infodemic must be stopped.
However, efforts are made to boost facts. People are advised to seriously fact check and check data to control the corrupt wave.
How to Prevent Fake News and Misinformation?
Long lost is the traditional journalism that it used to be. We are certainly free to read and follow diverse news sources. But it is also important that we are selective about our choices.
Here’s how we can counter fake news and reduce the misinformation effect:
- Spot the motive: Today it’s hard to tell if what we are seeing is real or not. Our phones are beeping with notifications at every second. It is upon us to deal with what’s right. I highly recommend watching Mozilla’s original short documentary, Misinfo Nation: Misinformation, Democracy, and the Internet. It’s great to find out how to spot misinformation and discover the truth.
- Keep social media at a distance: Did you know that political advertisers can target us with the content on Facebook? They track us by monitoring our activity on their platform and beyond. What we read or search often will keep coming back to us with new news. So, it’s best to reduce our social media usage to lower the misinformation effect on our life.
- Check the source: Even if it may sound impolite, check the source of the information. Be it from our relative or a close friend. The most trusted sources of information are the NHS, the World Health Organisation, or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the USA. See how a misleading post “uncle with a master’s degree” went viral.
- Don’t share if not sure: Don’t just share it on Facebook or forward it to Whatsapp groups because of ‘I thought you should know this!’ We might be actually doing more harm than good. Make sure to have a proof or clarity in what information is being passed on.
- Beware of emotional posts: Yes, we don’t go teary-eyed when we come across an emotional post. It doesn’t mean that we become heartless. Fear drives misinformation effects. When we see ‘tips for preventing virus’ or ‘COVID-19 drug found’, it could be a catch.
Of course, there is a seed of truth in there. But the way it is put up, may not be correct. Part of the blame goes to tech companies who profit from the misinformation share. We need to apply brakes to this infodemic in spreading further.
How Does our Brain Fall for Misinformation?
Neurologist Lesley Fellows, a professor at McGill University says, “Part of the reason we fall for false content lies in the way our brains take in information.” It’s a natural feature of our brain to assume and cope with information without a filter. Assumption makes our brain vulnerable to such misinformation. In addition to how our brain reacts to fake news, psychological and emotional layers play their part too.
Don’t fall prey to the Game of Emotions
It is very easy to believe in certain stories that affect us emotionally and psychologically. For example, when a friend tells us that ‘I saw your boyfriend with another lady’, we tend to accept this uncomfortable news.
Emotion also plays a big role. It is a powerful motivator. We strongly react to headlines, captions, video clips, and images that connect with us emotionally. Research shows that on Twitter words like “moral emotional”, “disgust” or “hate,” gets a 20 percent increase in being retweeted.
Be Aware of Repetition
When we repeatedly hear, see, or read a piece of misinformation effect, our mind believes it to be true. Repetition creates a perception that can result in a collective misremembering, much like the Mandela effect.
That said, some of us are prone to fake news because we are accepting of it. But, can’t we be more open-minded while paying attention to the source of information? Can’t we question our knowledge?
Have we imagined why a piece of information is designed to ‘go viral’? Thus, before we click share, retweet, and like, rethink its trustworthiness.
How to Protect our Mind from the ‘Rumour Virus’?
Reading juicy gossip or misinformation takes over our brain. I’d say that filling our minds with rumours is as good as getting sick with the virus. Northeastern University researchers tested how gossip affects our brain by using a phenomenon called binocular rivalry. It occurs when we show different imageries to each eye. Wonder how it’s possible?
Try this: Imagine looking at a car from the left eye and dog from the right eye. Naturally, our brain does not see both images at the same time. It mutes one image and focuses only on the other. We’ll either see a cat or a dog. This theory results in the conscious selection, much like what we read, hear and see.
Minding our mind in this COVID-19 infodemic is crucial. Our brain would rather be cautious and wrong, then let rumours and fake news stories breed in our minds.
So, what can we do to take care of our mental health?
- Indulge in a progressive muscle relaxation: It can be self-led or done with a guided video. It keeps our mind calm and helps find positivity around us.
- Practice gratitude: It may sound cheesy but it works. Pen it down in a notebook and relive the moments we’re thankful for.
- Short meditation rounds: Set the tone for a calm and productive day to keep rumour mills at a bay. Meditate in short bursts throughout the day and see the magic unfurl.
- Remember, this is a temporary phase: I know it’s very disturbing to adapt to change and accept the situation of COVID-19 outbreak. It’s important to feed our brain with positive and hope-filled thoughts. After all, this too shall pass.
- Problems exist just to be solved: we should thank life for the problems it forces us to face. The resolution of problems enriches us, improving our ability to survive. Problems, if properly understood and solved, make us very wise! This is why we should all thank life for the problems we have. Without problems, we could NEVER evolve and improve J
But while we’re in it. Let’s face the pandemic and win over it. It is important to choose the right information. We are together in this common threat. Of course, efforts to raise accurate information are a work in progress. Remember that in the name of research, we may be falling prey to misinformation. Hence, in the absence of a vaccine, the only way of controlling the spread of the virus is by “social distancing”. Not just between people but on social channels too.
If we’re ever tempted to share a piece of “information” about COVID-19 in our newsfeed- let’s just train our mind to be alert about it. Let’s not believe every word it says. Just say no to misinformation of any kind of news piece, video, or a picture. It will be liberating and we’ll be doing our bit in slowing down the plan. Quieten all memes and trolls, which after all, is just another kind of virus.
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