Illustrations by Hannah Robinson
In February of this year, the Director-General of the World Health Organization declared an ‘infodemic’. As COVID-19 began to spread at a terrifyingly rapid pace across the globe, along with it grew an extraordinary volume of information about it. When such an excess of information on a subject pours out from a seemingly infinite number of sources, it not only creates confusion, but it becomes much more difficult to identify solutions. Speculation, opinion and conspiracy becomes tangled up with fact and over time it becomes increasingly challenging to decipher what is true from what is not: this is a phenomenon we have certainly experienced over the last several months.
Misinformation and disinformation have almost been a pandemic in themselves since the era of twenty-four-seven news coverage and social media began. Although often used interchangeably, misinformation and disinformation are distinguished by one important factor: disinformation involves intent. Misinformation and disinformation are by no means new phenomena, but right now we are more vulnerable to their effects than ever before.
For a lot of people, fear of this pandemic is not a fear of the virus itself, but rather its unpredictability. Therefore, a natural tendency has appeared in many of us to try to become as informed as possible. However, such a tendency, combined with the constant onslaught of new information across all media platforms has somewhat backfired. We are so desperate to find answers to our endless questions about this virus, that we are much less likely to verify the information that we come across or to check the credibility of our sources. In other words, we are inherently more susceptible to both consuming and spreading misinformation.
Although we cannot dismiss the danger of misinformation, it can be considered as a natural side effect of mass media. What is far from natural, however, is disinformation: the deliberate dissemination of falsehoods, a purposeful act of misleading. It is the weaponisation of information, and a society drowning in uncertainty is the perfect victim. The United States and Brazil have suffered the highest death tolls from COVID-19, and it is difficult not to question whether disinformation has played a role in this. In April, the world watched in disbelief as Donald Trump suggested that people should consider injecting themselves with disinfectant to combat COVID-19. In a similarly senseless fashion, Jair Bolsonaro proudly proclaimed that “the cure is here… chloroquine is working everywhere”, referring to the use of malaria drug hydroxychloroquine as an effective treatment for COVID-19. Both claims are, of course, completely unsubstantiated. These statements are not only clear examples of reckless disinformation, but they pose direct threats to public health.
A sinisterly Orwellian shadow emerges here, as we witness the normalisation of politicians touting false information as though it were factual. Not only can such invalid proclamations lead to direct fatalities, they also create a widespread distrust meaning that people may cease to listen to or adhere to any health advice or guidelines set forward. The prolific and continual rise in numbers of infections and deaths in the United States and Brazil speaks exactly to this danger.
More than ever, this pandemic has shown that the seismic effects of false news cannot be underestimated. Whilst COVID-19 continues to spread, misinformation and disinformation will inevitably follow in its wake. Even in our desperation to find stability in answers, we must not accept the ease by which misleading information can be created, but rather we must combat it by maintaining vigilance in the verification of the information that we absorb. In doing so, we can reduce the contagion of this infodemic and allow solutions to fight their way through.