Countries are fighting two battles parallelly, one against the Covid-19 pandemic and the other against misinformation. The WHO describes this as an information pandemic – an infodemic caused due to the overabundance of false and misleading information in the form of rumours, unsubstantiated claims, conspiracy theories, and miracle cures.2Even before the Covid-19 pandemic started, self-medication based on misinformed knowledge was a genuine concern for health professionals, and Covid-19 has exacerbated this. To add fuel to the fire, untrained epidemiologists and government leaders are putting non-factual statements on public platforms, misleading the public discourse around the pandemic. Approximately 23%–26% of YouTube videos were involved in disseminating misinformation regarding COVID-193. Furthermore, sites like Twitter and Facebook reported that between March 2020 and April 2020, approximately 90 million pieces of content had warning labels on them because they perpetuated Covid-19 misinformation like false cures, and conspiracy theories4.
The impact of misinformation is being witnessed worldwide, resulting in the destruction of 5G towers in Europe based on the unsubstantiated claim that 5G causes COVID-195 to the belief that the virus doesn’t exist,6 leading to a refusal to follow social distancing regulations in the United States.7 In Iran alone, over 700 people died due to the false belief that methanol cured Covid-19.8 Misinformation has also resulted in targeted attacks on healthcare providers in Latin America.9 A report from the American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene analysed Covid-19 related misinformation between December 31st, 2019 and April 5th, 2020, and found out that 800 deaths and nearly 5,800 hospital admissions were a direct result of misinformation.10
To tackle this, a team of WHO “Myth busters” began working with big tech companies to counter the spread of rumours by providing a list of rumours and the facts as well as a mechanism for reporting misinformation.11 In addition, the WHO has started a chatbot service on Whatsapp and Facebook to disseminate accurate information about the Covid-19 pandemic in several languages.12 Furthermore, the UN launched an initiative named ‘Verified,’ which invited citizens to register and become “information volunteers’’ and tasked them with disseminating UN-verified content.13 Google has also launched the First Draft Coalition which trains reporters and news organizations worldwide to respond to fake news.14
Various countries are actively producing advisories to correct the misinformation and establishing digital fact-checking mechanisms. Taiwan has resorted to a “2-2-2” response to misinformation: responding in 20 minutes in less than 200 words and using 2 images, prioritising “humour over rumour” to dispel the rumors and propagate correct information.15 In Haiti, a toll-free LAVE hotline had an interactive rumor quiz to test people’s knowledge of the virus. Likewise, in India and Ethiopia, the caller tune of telephone calls16 was used as a medium to dissipate accurate details about the virus.17
South Korea has taken an entirely different approach: emphasising the predicament faced by other countries due to misinformation while using a variety of media and twice-daily press briefings to ensure public awareness of the threat posed by the virus and actions being taken to mitigate this threat.18 Asian countries like Bangladesh and China are resorting to strict penalties on the person who shares fake news to curb the misinformation19 20. In New Zealand, people are encouraged to share Covid-19 information only from official sources21. Australia has established a “myth-busting unit” to reduce vaccine hesitancy.22
Misinformation in any form and source can cost lives. Governments, multilateral agencies, corporate and civil societies need to work collectively and relentlessly to counter misinformation. Traditional and non-traditional channels of mass communication need to be used to make sure that verified information reaches the people. Simplifying the messages by getting rid of scientific jargon and translating into local languages and dialects will help maintain the sanctity of the information. Involving community-based organizations, community and religious leaders is one way where trust is instinctive. Self-regulation by the media irrespective of the nature of dissemination of information is also critical. It is for all of us to make sure that the efforts to control the pandemic should not be affected by the rife misinformation regarding the disease.
(This article was written by Sanjana Kulkarni & Ruchita Tamgadge under guidance of Dr. Swapna Jambhekar, CPPR Research Consultant)
Views expressed by the author are personal and need not reflect or represent the views of Centre for Public Policy Research.