If you type “coronavirus” in google search, about 3.15 billion results will appear in only 1 second. Coronavirus has become a huge topic in search interest.
As the first pandemic ever in the information age, the coronavirus is spreading together with numerous information, be them official guidelines, discussions on the social network, or rumors. Every day, articles about Covid-19 are produced, spread, and consumed (including the one you are reading right now).
As stated by the World Health Organization (WHO), the outbreak has been accompanied by a “massive infodemic”: an overabundance of information – some are accurate and some are not – that makes it hard for people to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance when they need it. While we do rely on technology to cooperate and control the crisis, the infodemic can also cause panic, generate confusion, and mislead behaviors.
What shall public sectors do to counter the infodemic, and what can we, as individuals, do to save ourselves from the infodemic?
Amid an Infodemic: Mind Your Mental Health
Infodemic refers to “a large increase in the volume of information associated with a specific topic and whose growth can occur exponentially in a short period of time due to a specific incident.” Many of us experienced an “information overload” which adds on to the panic and confusion especially at the beginning of the crisis.
The impact of information overload can go beyond “a few moments of feeling overwhelmed”, it can lead to feelings of anxiety, powerless, and mental fatigue. Like the virus, anxiety and panic can also transmit from one person to another.
During the pandemic, it is helpful for people to stay informed of the situation, medical guidelines, and policies, but consuming too much information on Covid-19 can raise anxiety to the level that harms our mental health. But be aware, staying informed is different from reading repeatedly on the same topic for a long time. News featuring on people dying alone, or images of those who are suffering certainly show us what’s going on in the world now. But if you feel uncomfortable reading about it, you have to the right to stop following.
Misinformation is Spreading like Virus
With the help of the internet, Information can spread even faster than the virus, as it cannot be locked down. Misinformation costs life. In this situation, misinformation and rumors appear on the scene.
Most people have read about rumors like “Covid-19 is spreading in tap water”, or “the virus was created in the lab as a bioweapon” on the social network. Misinformation like these can undermine the public health response by providing misleading explanations and guidance about the disease, which may lead to poor observance of public health measures and exposes everyone in greater danger. For example, it is shown that those who believe in conspiracy theories are less likely to accept the vaccine and engage in hygiene methods like hand-washing and mask-wearing. Only 22% of the conspiracy theories believers have intent to use the vaccines after they enter the market, compared with 76% in those who don’t believe in the misinformation.
Some misinformation is spread deliberately to advance nationalism or geopolitical agendas. It is also used to collect personal health data or phishing. The absence of correct information is also increasing stigmatization and polarizing public debate. Conspiracy theories and hate speech are adding conflicts and hatred between people, and the virus is exploiting these conflicts. This entire phenomenon is amplified by the internet and social networks.
Manage the iInfodemic: a Global Act
An infodemic cannot be eliminated, but it can be managed. International Organizations like the WHO is calling on governments and relative stakeholders to manage the infodemic. Suggested measures include:
- Governments should disseminate accurate information to all communities, especially high-risk groups in a timely manner.
- Governments should act to prevent the spread, and combat, mis- and disinformation while respecting freedom of expression.
- Decision making should go down to the community level, empower communities to develop local solutions against mis- and disinformation.
- Media and social media platforms are encouraged to be more responsible for the content on the platform.
- Involve researchers and technologists to design and build effective strategies and tools to respond to the infodemic.
- improving populations’ media, digital, and health literacy skills.
As Individuals: How to Protect Ourselves amid the Infodemic?
- Always look for facts and evidence: be critical when receiving information. Question the source and information: is it reliable? It’s hard to stay vigilant all the time, but worthy to take a second and think about it, especially when the story seems too perfect or totally ridiculous. If in doubt, do some fact-check with first-hand quotes, legal files, press releases, or official files or compare the content with other sources.
- Choose carefully and be cautious, only share or forward information that is fact-checked and reliable, promote facts and science.
- Be a good example. Correct people when they are sharing something not true. Encourage people around you to do the same. Verify the information, examine the content, and be critical.
- Spend less time online: check the latest information once/twice a day if needed to maintain good mental health. Turn off notifications on your phone and reduce the frequency of checking social media. Update your information from a few trusted sources.