By Adebayo Fayoyin & Akin Jimoh
Infodemic! The overabundance of information on coronavirus, especially on social media has been a tormenting reality for most of us. Nearly three months ago, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared coronavirus a pandemic. As global concern and anxiety grew over the viciousness of this virus, so did information about it grow and swell that soon it grew to such a dimension that it too became an infodemic. Today, we know that the infodmic is as lethal as the coronavirus itself.
We have all received an overdose of conspiracy theories and stories on its origin, its manifestations in various social groups and its impact. Many of us have also ‘shared as received’ or just simply ‘forward as received’ the latest juicy narrative from non-vetted sources.
Friends and colleague say their devices are bursting at the seams from the covid information glut through memes, gifs, podcasts, interviews, reports, data, forecasts, stories, adverts, pictures, bots, and cartoons on the pandemic. By now, we are more than saturated, and want to move on with life, covid or covid. Why not?
Besides, the controversy on the pandemic has waned. Our initial denial seems over. Its hysteria has flattened. We are more than ready for the new normal that coronavirus is introducing. But the infodemic is not over yet. There is as much supply, as there is the demand. To start with, the supply is still high. The covid-19 Misinformation Making Machines (MMM) is not resting. It is actively pumping torrents of messages on the virus to the planet. Some of the old narratives are now being recycled and recirculated. New angles to the old narratives are still floating around. The perpetrators have gotten more sophisticated and nuanced, using evidence, pseudo-scientific authority and persuasive analysis. They are adept at the use of velocity and virality. Clearly, there is coordinated and sustained effort behind covid misinformation.
Besides, the demand is not abating either. Many consumers are still looking for the latest stories on coronavirus. While some may have ingrained a level of discipline of not fishing for new information, the 24/7 news and information cycle on multiple platforms is providing most of us with live feeds on the pandemic, almost on minute by minute basis.
And as Fiedrich Nietzsche says, if you gaze into abyss, it will gaze back at you. Therefore if you gaze at infodemic, it will gaze back at you. Thus, many of the old conspiracy theories still ring in our heads and gazing back at us. They lead us to new demands for reinforcing conspiracy narratives. And when there is a demand, there is an abundant supply.
This is why we need a cure or a vaccine for this infodemic.
An information vaccine
As scientists are working fastidiously for a vaccine to coronavirus, we also need to come up with a response that has two goals – flattening the infodemic curve by limiting new infections, and secondly, finding a cure to the virus by coming up with an information vaccine.
This infodemic vaccine has multiple advantages. It will insulate our heads and heart against raging covid misinformation. It should inoculate our minds against extant conspiracy narrative and enable us to engage with sources of information in a more critical fashion. Finally, it should enhance our immune system against future health and social misinformation. In the end, our intolerance for misinformation or disinformation would be boosted.
Who needs the vaccine? For universal protection, we all do. Every source of message is at risk of intentional or unintentional misinformation. Every audience in the global, continental and national information eco-system needs the vaccine. Every receiver of information needs a sort of protection. Every gatekeeper – journalists, editors, and media influencers- needs it. Every opinion leader in the process of information use, including our religions leaders, policy makers and politicians would benefit from it. Every corporate citizen, able to reach multiple receivers of information needs a double dose. And every citizen’s journalist, or ‘churnalist’ and video-bloggers of our times cannot refuse the infodemic vaccine. This does not exclude young people, the digital natives. They need a new some dose of the infodemic vaccine too.
A vaccine against infodemic and misinformation has multiple elements. Five of its doses are examined below.
- A renewed interest in scientific literature: Across the world, science literacy is poor and on the decline. Although science is one of the major pillars of society, the level of interest, even in the basic areas of science from the non-scientific community, is weak. Without a doubt, scientific literacy has been the most neglected element of contemporary society. Limited appreciation of science and information is not limited to the general public, but permeates several institutions in society, most importantly the mass media. Several studies have argued that media reporting has prioritised politics, business and sports, while health and development issues are barely covered. Science-based reporting and communication have been next to zero. Thus, a new interest in science journalism and literacy would lead to knowledge based scientific reporting and save us from accepting bogus ideas on the virus and other health issues. Vibrant Science journalism and promotion of public understanding of Science can no longer be on the back burner in our new world. Funding of science communication and education would need to be part of this package.
- Understanding the hierarchy of evidence: Our current global information economy affords the opportunity to leverage the power of evidence in personal and public decision making. Yet it is important to understand nature of evidence and its hierarchy. Opinions and editorials should be on the lowest rung of the hierarchy of evidence. Nevertheless, they pass for gospel truth on the pandemic. Others elements of the hierarch of evidence include cohort studies, case report series, evidence from randomised control trials and systematic reviews. No doubt, these are the topics that we all appreciate or think about during family dinner conversations. We also do not claim that science is completely fool proof in terms of the data it generate. Sometimes some data are not helpful for their consumers. Many challenges confront the process of generating evidence for public use. Our point here is that we need to need to be careful of ingesting unfiltered information and making them gospel truths. Insights on the hierarchy of evidence would enable us to jettison some data and information and cling to others.
- Critical judgement of information and fact checking: Lack of critical thinking and analysis have been at the root of embracing and clinging to coronavirus misinformation and disinformation. This is why many believe arguments and stories, including the patently bizarre stories. Our tendency to believe everything, is dangerous. Going forward, it becomes critical to be discerning in sharing information. It requires thinking through arguments and judging their authenticity, and reliability. We will all do ourselves and others, a world of good by critically evaluating the information we get. As we are in the day of everyday use and abuse of propaganda, a more critical mind-set is golden.
A twin virtue to this is fact checking. As we have all learnt, the hard way, lack of fact checking contributed to covid information crisis. In a polarised and contested eco-system, fact-checking is so, so critical. Journalists and other media professionals need more fact checking. Agencies that produce data for the public consumption need to strengthen their interface with media professionals in order to enhance adequate reporting of data from such fields. In an age of modern day propaganda and fake news, we can’t afford not fact check and verify the information we receive and process.
- Recovery of truth and trust: Social philosophers have lamented the dilemma of truth and trust in our world today. Truth, they say has fallen, while trust is diminished. In many instances truth has been humiliated, while trust has evaporated. Many argue that we are in a post truth world. The controversy on coronavirus affirms this. There is a definite truth about what it is and where it came from. After all, this is an age of knowledge and big data. Why is the origin of coronavirus such a mystery? As a vaccine against misinformation and disinformation, we need to urgently recover the twin values of truth and trust in our society. But uncritical trust is also the oxygen for the infodemic.
- Introduction of appropriate gatekeeping level of function in the social media age: Gatekeeping is function of filtering information before it is disseminated in the mass media. Gatekeepers are well informed and professional writers, correspondents, editors, and all those involved in the editorial or production process. But in the social media age, this function is largely non-existent.
Many of us receive or curate messages on social media and internet, which are circulated within and across groups, friends and social networks. Many receive multiple posts of the same messages time and time again. The bulk of what is sent is non-vetted and unfiltered. This is grave danger for society.
Luckily the social media giants Facebook and YouTube are beginning to implement some institutional control mechanisms on materials that promote the coronavirus infodemic. This is a laudable development. But we need more than that. We need a greater injection of gatekeeping into our contemporary social media use. At the individual levels, we need to be careful of ‘sending just as received’. This should become a new norm of all digital citizen. No information should be shared without fact checking. The ‘group admin’ of our social networks also need to practice more responsible gatekeeping to free of us from receiving fake news and garbage. We know that if it not properly handled, it could lead to some of censorship. However, the society needs to deal with the lesser of two evils.
Covid 19 is dangerous. So is its infodemic. The world is looking for a cure and a vaccine for the pandemic. We also are need a vaccine for infodemic. The infodemic vaccine does not require tonnes of money or playing around with pathogens. The simple and old discipline of critical thinking and discretion in engaging with sources of information would be key. Some level of trust in truthful and credible information sources would be critical. This would help clean the polluted waters of our current information ecology.
We don’t have to wait till 2021 for this vaccine. We can all start practising these principles today, and half the information pandemic and flatten its curve at a very low level. We all can immunize and inoculate ourselves today against covid misinformation and disinformation.
Freedom from covid-19 misinformation and disinformation is our fundamental human right!
Article written by Prof. Adebayo Fayoyin, Visiting Professor, Department of Mass Communication, Caleb University, Imota Lagos & Akin Jimoh, Executive Director, Development Communications Network, Lagos.