Don't let the infodemic scare you during the pandemic

The last time I practised social distancing was in my boarding school when I was quarantined for contracting chicken pox.

By Shalini Verma

Published: Mon 23 Mar 2020, 6:00 PM

Last updated: Mon 23 Mar 2020, 8:46 PM

A world in lockdown, life in a limbo, hundreds of million people in self-quarantine. Who would have thought a few months ago that the world would come to this?
The last time I practised social distancing was in my boarding school when I was quarantined for contracting chicken pox. It meant being sentenced to weeks of idle time in the melancholic school hospital. We had little choice in the matter. Our regimental school nurses ensured that we did not pass on the infection to our classmates. It worked.
Today, governments are asking people to stay home, a move ranging from a prohibitory clampdown, to a shelter-in-place directive to a cordial request. Governments' tone and tenor may differ, stay home hashtags may vary, but across the world, we are expected to stay indoors.
This shouldn't have been difficult. After all we have been practising social distancing since we latched onto social media. We are also rediscovering the simple pleasures of pottering around the house. We can now spend time doing things we always wanted to. Yet we are failing miserably. Rather than reconnecting with ourselves, we are spending time looking at posts about reconnecting with ourselves. We are still planning to rekindle our childhood hobbies after we finish checking another meme on Instagram. This is because social media has become a lifeline during this pandemic. We are searching for glimmers of hope about bending the proverbial curve and taking comfort in memes about discovering life at home.
With millions of people in self-quarantine, social media usage has shattered forecasts and historical trends. Social influencers are reporting that while they have scaled back on posts because marketing campaigns are on hold and travel has evaporated, they are seeing a greater engagement because people are at home checking updates. Facebook has seen an unprecedented spurt in traffic, outstripping the spike on New Year's Eve. WhatsApp has doubled its server capacity in the past weeks.
Almost the entire human population has been confused about how bad the Covid-19 disease outbreak is. We have been caught in the web of recycled WhatsApp messages that tell us to panic, not to panic, and then to worry but just a little. For the first time, I find it difficult to suss the truth out from the relentless waves of messages about the pandemic. I find myself sharing some and regretting later. The messages are elaborate, structured and embellished with fiction posing as facts. Some messages have the perfect blend of fact and fiction. Even a discerning eye finds it hard to unmask the wolves in sheep clothing trying to push jingoistic and political agendas in the name of coronavirus.
In this mayhem, two things have become clear as day. Firstly, the source of the information has become critical. We cannot believe anything unless we know the 'original' source. Secondly, coronavirus has exposed why a robust editorial process is crucial for the world to remain sane.
In the last two days, we have been debating about taking anti-malaria drugs for prevention, based on some positive results from the frontlines. The different shades of opinions have triggered a deep sense of unease. Who is giving the information? Is it some surreptitious IT cell or a medical practitioner?
Legitimate sources like the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the UK National Health Service or Dubai Health Authority have become even more significant. People are also fact-checking with their doctors in their community. The World Health Organization's WHO Health Alert on
WhatsApp has more than a million registrations. This shows that people are actively searching for trusted sources. A growing hunger for coronavirus news updates has caused a near doubling of traffic for major news websites. People are sharing posts in WhatsApp groups to simply fact-check.
The value of curating information has become more relevant. Coronavirus is testing social media's ability to check rampant misinformation especially when it comes from heads of state, politicians, and actors. Facebook's army of content moderators have become even more critical in protecting its legitimacy as an information disseminator. It processes the content through automated systems that detect similar content and prohibits exploitative ads.
Unlike Twitter or Youtube, the messaging giant WhatsApp cannot take down fake news because of message encryption. Hence, its rising tide of misinformation needs to be drowned out by legitimate voices. Facebook is planning to launch a Coronavirus Information Center at the top of the users' feed to provide verified information.
Organisations need to actively use the AI Chatbot function on WhatsApp to create direct lines of communication. If the industry cannot stop misinformation, at least it can soften its blow by flooding social media with reliable information. As users, we need to check if the information makes us emotional. If the answer is yes, we should ignore it.
Our curiosity, eagerness to access more information should also be quarantined. The decisions we make based on coronavirus information will determine how long the pandemic will last. Therefore, this pandemic's subplot of misinformation needs to be tackled decisively through trusted sources and curated information.
Shalini Verma is CEO of PIVOT technologies

More news from