ON A four-day private visit to Britain in 1989, the 40th president of the United States Ronald Regan mentioned that ‘Information is the oxygen of the modern age. It seeps through the walls topped by barbed wire, it wafts across the electrified borders.’ Regan’s comment seems to have become more significant than ever before in this information society where information plays a vital role in shaping every sector ranging from commercial to service. Even in our personal life, we have to rely on a huge amount of information. But what if the oxygen of modern age, information that is, is misinformation? This is exactly what is happening in today’s society. We are surrounded by a lot of information, but it is needed to be filtered before using, disseminating, and applying.
During this unprecedented crisis created by the COVID-19 pandemic, an unscrupulous group of people is active in disseminating misinformation. Most of this misinformation is being made viral in a matter of seconds on social media. The World Health Organisation explains it as an ‘infodemic’, which is ‘an excessive amount of information about a problem, which makes it difficult to identify a solution.’ Everyone, educated or not, whoever has access to social media, is somehow believing in it or sharing it. It is a great concern during the COVID-19 crisis as information is now so critical that it can be a cause of death or a tool to save lives.
There is no straightforward solution to combat this infodemic of misinformation regarding COVID-19. What we can do is to develop certain skills and competencies while using or reading any piece of information. This is popularly termed as media and information literacy. The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organisation defines it as the ‘set of competencies to search, critically evaluate, use and contribute information and media content wisely; knowledge of one’s rights online; understanding how to combat online hate speech and cyberbullying; understanding of the ethical issues surrounding the access and use of information; and engage with media and ICTs to promote equality, free expression, intercultural/interreligious dialogue, peace, etc.’ Media and information literacy can enable people to distinguish between fake and authentic information.
Certain practices can be undertaken to combat this infodemic regarding COVID-19. The sources of the information must be identified before believing it. Authentic and authoritative sources must be used for information. If people get information from a source, they must check it with authoritative sources. For example, the authoritative source of news and updates regarding COVID-19 in Bangladesh is the Institute of Epidemiology, Disease Control and Research. WHO and UNESCO are for certain the most reliable sources to gain information on the world situation regarding COVID-19. When people do not read content from an authoritative source, they need to spot the supporting evidence, facts, and references from where the authenticity of the information can be checked. By checking and consulting references, people can identify the accuracy of information. Reading carefully is also an important factor in determining misinformation or fake information. Most of us while using general media and social media only read catchy headlines. A report published in the Independent indicated that ‘70 per cent of Facebook users only read the headline of science stories before commenting and 59 per cent of the links shared on social media have never actually been clicked.’ This is, indeed, an alarming bit of statistics that indicates why and how misinformation is spread. Before reading or sharing information regarding COVID-19, people need to check the timeliness of information. It is also important to identify the nature of the information. For example, someone might post or share something on social media for the purpose of humour or sarcasm, but the audience who read the posts or messages must have the ability to judge that; it will, otherwise, create a lot of unintended consequences. Also before producing such posts or messages regarding any crisis like COVID-19, people posting should think whether it is necessary to publish this. During the COVID-19 crisis, a lot of medicines and strategies are prescribed as a ‘treatment’ for the novel coronavirus by so-called ‘experts’. Before applying them, people need to gather information on the background, speciality and the authority of such treatment given by experts. People must cross-check the information with authoritative medical officers assigned for the purpose. One can also consult with information specialists or librarians for fact-checking of the information.
During this infodemic of misinformation, parents need to be more careful regarding the mental health and information sharing practices of their children. These skills also need to be transformed steadily in their day-to-day information practices. Whenever anyone shares any content from any web site or social media, they must be unbiased and exert good judgement and discretion. If anyone is not totally certain about the content, it is strongly discouraged to share them. Nevertheless, people need to develop critical thinking skills while using and sharing information regarding COVID-19.
Precaution is also needed for protecting ourselves from cybercrime. The Council of European Union state that criminals use infodemic to carry out their malevolent motives which include cyber-attack distributing malware via links and attachment, supply scams, decontamination scams, distribution of fake corona home testing kits, home visits by fraudsters pretending to be law enforcement or healthcare officials offering testing for COVID-19 to enter homes and steal valuables, etc.
Information is power as long as it is credible. Media and information literacy is the appropriate strategy to be practised by every citizen to combat the pandemic of misinformation during the COVID-19 crisis.
Md HasinulElahi is the senior lecturer in information studies and library management at East West University.
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