Pandemics & viral disinformation

As the COVID-19 pandemic advances, the fight against the virus has taken on a new front: against misinformation.

Fear, panic, confusion and information void: fertile grounds for disinformation

Amidst the panic set by COVID-19 spread- the hard-pressed U.S. Health and Human Services (HHS) Department faced a different threat-a cyber-attack falsely proclaiming a national quarantine in the U.S. While the authorities quickly went into damage control mode, experts are warning of a “steady stream” of more such phishing attacks with cyber criminals preying on the information void. This is a new front in the war against the pandemic: combating rumours, misinformation and flat-out lies that will swamp the internet.

Ever since the onset of COVID-19, people from all walks of life are offering their own theories, creating confusion, panic and an overreaction by citizens who are hoarding supplies and sanitizers.  The extent of misinformation has compelled the World Health Organization (WHO) to launch a website dispelling fake claims and convoluted theories. The social media sites are also flagging false posts and removing them from their platforms. 

Rumour mongering goes back in history all the way to the great plague which killed millions in Europe.  The “Black Death” was attributed to the Jews provoking ostracism and violence against the community. In 1950 in East Germany, a Colorado potato beetle infestation caused crop damage, and the country's leadership was quick to blame the United States. However, the most widely disseminated misinformation campaign was orchestrated by the Soviet KGB in the 1980s, code name Operation Detrick, which blamed the U.S. for the AIDS virus. The fabrications claimed that the U.S had been testing the virus on prison inmates, ethnic minorities, and the LGBT community. Similar conspiracy theories are doing the rounds with the coronavirus now, with uninformed and scared social media users adding fuel to the fire by retweeting and sharing information incessantly. 

What's being said about the coronavirus?

China and the U.S. have been pointing fingers at each other, for creating the virus as a bioweapon. The U.S. has also accused Russia of the same.  A study by the U.S. State Department said that close to two million tweets were making the rounds, believing in conspiracy theories about the virus.  

The cure for COVID-19 has generated its own flood of misinformation from politicians advocating the use of cow urine to herbs.   Amidst all the hype, useful nuggets of correct information is getting lost. What media organisations fail to mention is that unlike other CoVs, the COVID-19 has a very low mortality rate compared to its MERS and SARS strains. As of the beginning of the week, there have been 198,378 cases reported worldwide, and only 7,981 deaths, showing the mortality rate to be close to 4 percent.

Herd mentality and panic reactions

In an atmosphere of doomsday predictions and a flood of conspiracy theories, the mass behaviour of the public takes on a herd mentality manifested by unending lines at supermarkets for stocking up hand sanitizers, toilet paper rolls, canned foods, etc. This focus on bulk buying practical goods can be seen as a behavioural reaction to stress and uncertainty, and it is something that helps people feel in control.

During a pandemic, the protocol is to conduct medical inspections, use social distancing to curb the spread, and reinforce hygiene. Nothing different from what is happening currently - these are basic containment measures. The situation, however, has been exacerbated by social media and the lack of proper information that could inform the public about what has happened. The basic strategy is to select and concentrate effort on these goals and start vaccine production at the same time.

What’s worked against the virus so far? 

In China, the source of the pandemic, cases now have reduced from 2000 a week to zero domestic cases. Vigorous testing and the mass lockdowns have apparently succeeded in containing the spread. Vietnam immediately declared the coronavirus as an epidemic in February, when the number of cases rose to six in the country. Rigorous monitoring, enhanced laboratory testing, and clear risk communication have been key in containing the disease. 

 In India, although cases are steadily rising, they have not yet reached rates being experienced in the U.S and in Europe.  However, the epidemic is only in stage 2, and the real impact will be visible only when the transition to stage 3 takes place. However, the government has got its act together and has been putting up measures which have been termed "robust" by international agencies. 

Assessment

  • Pandemics are inevitable being natural occurrences, albeit exacerbated by human misdemeanours. Bioterror is also a possibility and will only get easier as the required technology becomes more ubiquitous.

  • Improved communication between researchers and the media is indeed recommended but is only part of the solution to counter digital misinformation. Public health challenges stemming from online misinformation are at a complex junction of research, media, and social network activism through user-created content and consumer reception of information.

  • In a digitised world, Network sociology is as influential as the content and scientific validity of a particular health issue currently viral on social media. Public health must employ social strategies for improved communication management. When the next pandemic strikes, which it will, accurate information will be just as important as effective treatments.

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