When pandemics like the coronavirus (COVID-19) strike, authorities and governments are often fighting on two fronts. The first: understanding the virus, researching treatments and vaccines, and isolating infected populations. The second is the avalanche of fake news, rumours and lies posted by thousands across the internet – the accompanying “infodemic”.
According to cybersecurity multinational Check Point, coronavirus-themed domains are 50% more likely to be malicious than other domains. Experts suggest that while there is little evidence of mass-coordinated fake news campaigns, the biggest contributor to the infodemic is speculation and online rumours originating from online platforms and social media.
“The most unique — and perhaps most frightening — aspect of COVID-19 is the way information about the epidemic has spread through the internet, and social media in particular,” said Landon Myer, director of the School of Public Health & Family Medicine at the University of Cape Town. “The notion of an infodemic is quite apt, as the rumour, panic and fear it fuels has a far greater reach than the virus itself.”
Laura Garcia, who works for non-profit organisation First Draft — a global non-profit that supports journalists, academics and technologists addressing challenges relating to misinformation in the digital age – says understanding the environment in which misinformation is disseminated is extremely important.
First Draft coined the term “information disorder”, which refers to the ways in which the environment we absorb information from is polluted. “Most of the information isn’t even fake; it’s often genuine, used out of context and weaponised by people who know that falsehoods based on an ounce of truth are more likely to be believed and shared,” explains Garcia.
Twitter is a huge offender. From early in the pandemic, the platform was full of users circulating rumours from second and third hand sources. In the UK, for example, they claimed falsely that that a military takeover of London was imminent.
Fight back with facts
So what can government do?
“I believe having an efficient national communication strategy is vital: this means the public knows where they can turn to for official information from the government,” says Professor Yik-Ying Teo, Dean of the Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health at the National University of Singapore.
He suggests a three-point approach: information, practice, and containment. “The public needs daily updates through one official channel on what the current status of COVID-19 is in the country; the best practices it should adopt in terms of hygiene and social distancing; and the current enforcement measures in place.”