COVID-19 & Infodemic: Role of Social Networks

COVID-19 & Infodemic: Role of Social Networks

Information is a boon to the society if delivered in an inappropriate way but misinformation could prove equally dangerous. In the era of information technology and constant connectedness, the phenomenon of the rapid spread of misinformation or “fake news” has presented itself as a challenge more than ever. World Health Organization (WHO) calls this spread of misinformation, disinformation or fake news as “infodemic” as it is the wrong information about a health problem, that spreads so rapidly that it hampers the process of finding a solution to the problem. Misinformation is believed to be used to mislead and spread false beliefs amongst the masses. There are different forms of misleading information such as misinformation, disinformation, "fake news" and "gaslighting". Each of them is defined differently based on the source, intent and the recipient. This misinformation, when consumed by the public, leads to acts of physical, verbal and cyber abuse crime in nature. There are multiple such acts reported from around the country, and the victims include the general public, healthcare workers and other government officials. There had been fatal attacks, including on people suspected of showing coronavirus symptoms by the public. These attacks show the horrific consequence of the spread of misinformation. Government is introducing several measures including advisories from the ministry of home affairs to the companies operating on a social media platform and a "fact check" portal on various government websites including that of the ministry of home affairs, and press information bureau. But, the phenomenon of the spread of misinformation is rather complex and is a twofold problem, the first is the lack of use of “fact check” portals by the common public, which is a result of a second deeper level concept of social learning, and the social network ties. This deeper level problem is a challenge to address. Issues such as “infodemic” might have long-lasting impacts, beyond the current crisis. The misinformation has the potential to become a "fact" in one's mind, which might lead to undesirable actions for a long time.

Covid-19 is the official name given to the pandemic of the spread of SARS-Corona virus (SARS-CoV-2) in the human population. It is a virus from the family of coronaviruses which lead to several illnesses ranging from the common cold to severe acute respiratory syndrome. The Covid-19 virus is believed to have originated from China and has spread to more than 210 countries and territories based on the WHO data on Covid-19. India currently has over 36 lakhs confirmed cases, and the numbers are rising each day. Government has taken measures on a war footing, including a nationwide lockdown to contain the spread of the virus in the community. The nature of virus which includes symptoms similar to common cold and flu has created confusion and paranoia amongst the masses, regarding the identification of the possible infected individual. This paranoia is further fuelled by the wrong information circulated around on various social media platforms. The misinformation about a major global health concern is worrisome, even global agencies such as United Nations (UN) & World Health Organization (WHO) have taken the cognizance of the misinformation crisis developing around the world and terms it as “infodemic”. It is the spread of wrong information around the current Covid-19 crisis and is hindering the ongoing process of its containment. The issue of "infodemic" is highly contagious and threatening. The misinformation is in multiple forms, including, videos shared online, text messages, text forwards and voice messages. This information does not generate from a reliable source and has no scientific backing, but it has the potential to reach the masses. Individuals rely on various not so trustworthy sources of information and believe it without any crosscheck. This misinformation creates panic, which can even lead to mass mobility in times when social distancing is paramount. It also leads individuals to engage in acts of abuse and crime, and such reports are common across the country. This phenomenon of the rapid spread of misinformation requires a more nuanced understanding of how it is spread? What are the social and psychological factors related to it? and what have been the measures suggested by researchers to address these issue? A simple fact-checking website / portal might not prove beneficial in the crisis such as Covid-19 & "infodemic", which can even lead to mass mobility in times when social distancing is paramount. It also leads individuals to engage in acts of abuse and crime, and such reports are common across the country. This phenomenon of the rapid spread of misinformation requires a more nuanced understanding of how it is spread? What are the social and psychological factors related to it? and what have been the measures suggested by researchers to address these issue?

In 2019, Prof. Cailin O'Connor & Prof. James Owen Weatherall of University of California, Irvine, authored a book titled "The Misinformation Age: How False Belief Spread", in which they propose that understanding of the social forces that act in the spread of misinformation and false belief is important to an effective fight against it. There is a clear distinction between three types of wrong information namely, misinformation, malinformation and disinformation. Misinformation has false connections & misleading content, disinformation is made up of false. imposter context, and fabricated & manipulated content, while malinformation is characterized as leaks, harassment and hate speech. The three are categorized as being false, harmful or both. In the current context, it could be observed that it is the misinformation, that forms the core of the "infodemic" crisis. Misinformation has the potential to make "democracies ungovernable". Misinformation is defined as an “information that is false, with or without the intent to harm or manipulate consumers”. It gives a detailed understanding of the elements of misinformation and the relationship between them. It is observed that the source of the misinformation might have varied intent such as financial, political or in the context of the health crisis, a false belief of having knowledge about the solution to the problem and the problem itself.

Humans are a social animal, and it is no different even in the case of misinformation consumption and spread. Individuals have a constant urge to be connected, with the fear of missing out (FOMO). This tendency to continuously consume information has for the masses caused the problem of quick belief and further spread. As a social learner, individuals form a belief or improve their knowledge based on the learning received from trusted others including parents, teachers and friends. Today, in the internet world, the scope of sources that form a part of the social learning has grown into multiple folds. It is rather difficult to establish the authenticity of the source of origination of any information received on the social media platforms unless specified by the originator. In the current difficult times, every individual is trying to make sense of the events occurring, and in that process, the misinformation plays a negative role informing wrong beliefs and predispositions about the situation. Such beliefs become stronger as more and more misinformation is fed into the sense-making process and later urges people to act upon it.

A check of the number of visits to the fact-checking websites such as AFP India reveals that the number of access to the website are way lower even relative to the existence of some other competing websites. The question arises, that even if individuals receive a piece of fake news or misinformation, what is it that does not let the person do a fact check? The answer probably lies in the social network of an individual. It is not just the learning, but also the ties with the source of information that play a vital role. Although the original source of information could be a distant non-network agent (an individual or a bot), in case of spread of information, source ties are referred to the immediate agent that shared the misinformation or to whom the information is forwarded to. The role of social ties has been realized as one of the boundary conditions in understanding the spread of misinformation. One is of the social ties with the immediate source of information and the other is a macro-level problem with the Indian education system at the primary and secondary level of schooling.

The social ties that we hold with an individual dictates the extent to which we believe on the person and the information received from them. A social network of a person rather online or offline is made up of a number of nodes (individuals) who hold their own property in terms of their affiliation, relationship with the person and so on. The ties and tie strength of the individual define their standing in the network (at the core or peripheral). Individuals, especially in India, are not used to questioning the information source when it is as a part of their inner circle of the social network. For example, an individual receives a forwarded message, which contains wrong information, from his friend / teacher / parent. This friend / teacher / parent is a well-educated person and works in a reputed job, so the individual decides to believe in what he / she has received as information (actually misinformation), and use it to form a belief. Now, the problem is that neither the source nor the recipient decided to gauge the authenticity of that information, based on whom it was received from. This creates a chain of such individuals sending and receiving the same misinformation, and this mass then if engages in acts based of the misinformation, it is when a crime happens due to misinformation and fake news. Why is then, nobody in the network decides to question the source of the information or the information itself?  The answer lies in the lack of development of critical perspective and the habit of asking questions. Developing a critical perspective and the habit of asking questions could be core to solving the problem of the rampant spread of misinformation. A critical perspective is the ability to explore, understand and evaluate the background, and multiple interpretations of information. A lack of such perspective & thinking leads to mass consumption and belief on misinformation, which later takes an ugly shape in the form of criminal activities such as verbal abuse, discrimination, killings, fatal attacks, cyberbullying and many others.

Although there are reports of reduced crimes across the country, as an effect of the countrywide lockdown, parallel continuous news emerges about the attacks, many criminal and discriminatory, on the general public. These are largely fuelled by misinformation spread across social media platforms. Recently, Rights and Risk Analysis Group, a New Delhi based think tank, released a report titled "Coronavirus Pandemic: India's Mongoloid Looking People Face Upsurge of Racism" which mentions the upsurge in the racial discrimination against the mongoloid faced Indians, due to the origin of Covid-19 pandemic in China, and calls for enactment of "anti-racism laws" in India. In another recent news report by IANS, a man shot his friend because he sneezed. These all criminal acts are possibly a result of the spread of misinformation and the paranoia created by them amongst the masses regarding the pandemic. A simple sneeze might not be a Covid-19 infection, all mongoloid looking people are not Chinese, and all Chinese are not the carrier of Covid-19 infection. The government in its effort to contain the spread of coronavirus has directed the healthcare workers to identify and visit the possible hotspots of infection, test people and quarantine them. There had been news reports of stone-pelting on the healthcare workers and accompanying police officers in certain parts of the country. The possibility of such an incident could also be attributed to probable misinformation about the process of quarantining and SARS-CoV-2 testing. Misinformed individuals are also engaging in cybercrimes, such as generating and spreading of actual (against privacy rights of a patient) or false medical records (forgery). The major issues with such crimes are that they emanate out of formed beliefs based on misinformation. These beliefs are also continuously reinforced and tend to become uncontainable. Thus the "infodemic" might even stay active longer than the "Covid-19 pandemic" and would pose a challenge to the government as an inevitable beast.

In order to fight the issue of misinformation spread, creating fact check portals and / or issuing advisories to the social media companies, might not be very effective in the long term. The issue of "infodemic" although seems controllable at first, might have unforeseen consequences for the political, economic and social structure of the country. There is a need to chalk out a plan by taking into account a more nuanced deeper aspect such as socio-dynamics, of the issue. It is not just cybercrime experts or computer scientist, but rather social scientists, psychologists, population science experts, education researchers and many such related field experts need to sit together to find a workable, more holistic solution to the problem of the spread of misinformation / fake news or in short “infodemic”.

About the Author

Parijat Lanke
Research Fellow.

Parijat Lanke is a Senior Research Fellow in the Area of Organizational Behavior at Indian Institute of Management Tiruchirappalli. 

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