The dangers of digital disinformation

Digital disinformation

The Corona crisis is the first pandemic in the era of 5G. In today’s competitive and reactive market place, scammers, hackers, conspiracy theorists etc. continue to put out false information that is now spreading quicker than ever.

American Professor, Kathleen Hall Jamieson, from the University of Pennsylvania calls this “viral disinformation”. However, what happens now, when this viral disinformation meets an actual virus like COVID-19?

This tends to end in a predictable storyline where one side of the divide points fingers at the government and the other side claims that it is the media that are simply scare-mongering. Yet, what all this misses is the actual role that digital information is playing as viral disinformation continues to spread undetected online.

There is still very much that we are unsure of with regards to COVID-19. However, given the current aggression of the crisis, it seems fair to suggest that it is not disappearing any time soon. Obviously, both governments and the media have imperative roles to play with regards to their response to the outbreak. However, individuals also have a social responsibility in how they choose to communicate and interpret the information they read.

Public companies have a duty to their staff, customers, and shareholders to think clearly and cautiously about how they communicate information about COVID-19. The CEO of a company and how they handle the looming crisis, is now similar to that of a politician as every move is watched and analyzed.

Government authorities should also follow public health guidelines for pandemics. The population should be informed of what they know, what they do not know, and what they are doing about the unknown information. Public spokespeople should calmly communicate facts with no aspects of speculation.

This also applies to schools, universities, gyms, and other organisations that come with a duty to protect the people they bring together and avoid spreading gossip filled with unscientific disinformation.

So many of these groups have now followed such recommendations and the guidelines of health officials worldwide by cancelling large gatherings and sending students home etc. This is of course easily communicated in the digital world.

But what is also important, are individuals with an internet connection. The average person today has substantial power with regards to how they are able to interpret and communicate information. The question is, will that power cultivate good or perpetuate the spread of viral disinformation?

There are two communication guidelines that can assist those who come with no background in public health to make sure that they are using their digital power to help the international community contain the spread if COVID-19. This can be thought of as digital hand-washing.

  • Before re-tweeting, sharing, or liking anything, stop for a moment and consider the source. Where did it come from? Has it come from the state’s public health department or from your friend who is not a doctor but has watched every single episode of Grey’s Anatomy.

If it does seem like a reliable source, then click back to the source’s website and check to see if it is a legitimate news media channel. If you have never heard of it then stop. There is an increasing trend in viral disinformation to create and develop fake news sites with the digital sophistication of a reliable media channel – a fancy logo, a serious name, sufficient content – all making a site look trustworthy when it actually isn’t.

  • Second, do not just be a passive receiver of information. Check the reality yourself.

Whether we are in the US, the UK, Europe, or Asia, our taxes fund public health institutions. In the US, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention employs more than 15,000 doctors’ epidemiologists and pandemic response experts. They also have communication professionals who are able to translate such expertise and knowledge into advice and recommendations written thoroughly, and in a variety of languages on their website, which is constantly updated.

These guidelines may sound simplistic. However, much like washing our hands, if everyone takes the accuracy of the information they receive seriously, we all stand a higher chance of lessoning the impact of COVID-19. Furthermore, when the world is able to look back on COVID-19, the same principles may also be used to start closing the divide in society that is motivated by unchecked flow of online viral disinformation.

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