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The age of Infodemic and how to stop the spread

Murtaza Sadriwala shares tips on handling fake news

“Virtually everyone who is in the hospital sick with COVID-19 is… vaccinated”, a video of US Vice President Kamala Harris recently went viral on social with a claim that those hospitalised because of COVID-19 in the US are vaccinated.

Understandably so, this video left people furious and flabbergasted against the backdrop of the growing number of Omicron variant cases in the US and other parts of the world. In less than 48 hours of the video going live, it garnered millions of views, shares, and rage conversations on various social media platforms.

Later, the fact-checking portals clarified that the original video was altered to make the false claim. In the actual speech, Kamala Harris stated that everyone who was hospitalised or had recently died from the virus was unvaccinated, rather than the other way around.

The video was edited by removing the first syllable of the word “unvaccinated” and making it seem like she was saying “vaccinated.”

In the febrile world of social media – where everything is getting increasingly complex – where does this lead us to?

The Social Media Infodemic

As the COVID-19 pandemic swept across the world in 2020, the term ‘infodemic’ rose from obscurity, becoming a popular metaphor representing the rapid spreading of often false and misleading information. Particularly, one social platform that was pegged to be the key channel through which tidal waves of misinformation spread was the messenger app WhatsApp.

The messaging service uses end-to-end encryption to protect messages, allowing for privacy, confidentiality, and, most importantly, security of the users – which we all love, of course.

In the wake of the pandemic, WhatsApp served as the primary conduit through which people could safely and securely connect and sympathize with their loved ones. However, it quickly took on a much darker role due to the overabundance of information – mainly misinformation. This overabundance of misinformation has made it harder for people and organisations to find trustworthy and reliable information when they need it.

Although on a rampant rise because of the pandemic, the phenomenon of disinformation and misinformation is nothing new. They have always existed in different media forms since the very beginning. This is largely because false information ignites a certain emotion in us, prompting us to share.

We as humans have an affinity towards anything that makes us feel in a certain way. Much of that need to ‘Select’ and ‘Forward’ a message as soon as we lay our eyes on it could also be attributed to our inherent fear of missing out (FOMO). We just don’t want to be left behind in the social race. And we certainly don’t want to feel the anxiety that ensues as a result of feeling excluded from our social groups.

But it would be unfair to pin it all on human nature.

Social media platforms have brought a certain fine-tuning to fictional stories. Many rumours are often wrapped around a kernel of truth. Couple that with the expert editing of the fake videos and photos, and the lines between the trustworthy and the untrustworthy get increasingly blurred.

With almost 50% of the 2.4 billion+ internet users consuming their daily news from popular social media platforms first, it comes as no surprise that we are dealing with an avalanche of information or misinformation across platforms.

Sometimes, receiving news solely through social platforms becomes even more dangerous due to the fact that likes and shares drive the value of the content. If our content is not likeable and shareable, it is simply not worth believing.

And when does a piece of content get likes and shares? When it evokes emotion. And when does it evoke an emotion? When it’s intriguing.

Inoculation against misinformation

The challenge of tackling the social media infodemic has been immense, given the amount of information being exchanged every second across omnichannel mediums. International organisations like the United Nations & Who Health Organisation are making efforts to target the very behaviours that induce people to share fake news on social platforms.

Just like how a virus needs a host to multiply and spread, similarly, misinformation targets the notoriously fallible human brains as a contact to spread the news. However, by practicing social distancing and some brain hygiene, one can disengage from spreading unverified information.

  • Pause and reflect: Ask yourself how the information makes you feel. Interrupt your emotional response and instead resort to critical thinking.
  • Analyse the source. Who shared the information with you? Where did they get it from? Verify the information’s authenticity before you engage with it in any way.
  • Leave your biases at the door. We all have biases. Factor yours in when you are drawn to a piece of information and feel compelled to share it. Why did you react to it the way you did? How does the information speak to you? Is the message simply telling you what you want to hear?
  • Share. Or don’t. If you can’t verify it or are unsure about its credibility, don’t share!

Acting & Sharing Responsibly

In the internet and social media age, misinformation is simply impossible to run away from. As users, the onus is on each of us to be responsible for our sharing. It is imperative for us to realise that we all play a collective role in keeping each other physically and mentally safe.

Understanding how social platforms largely curate what we see and how even our near and dear ones can be misled or misconstrued by the information that is pregnant with emotions can go a long way in overcoming the dangers of the infodemic.

A small, seemingly meaningless share or forward message can have big consequences on an individual or organisation’s reputation. Once anything has been committed to the internet, it becomes part of an indelible record of our lives – be it good or bad.

Ask yourself what the information you are about to share or post means to you. Is it credible and worth sharing? Are you potentially joining the chain of misinformation that is inherently aimed at spreading lies and controversy? Or are you willing to pause and reflect on the consequences of your message before you hit the ‘forward’ or ‘send’ button?

 Murtaza Sadriwala, is a media consultant associated with various Dawoodi Bohra community Trusts.

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