OPINION: We must flatten the curve of misinformation

It is everyone’s duty to be calm and measured, says the writer. (Getty Images)
It is everyone’s duty to be calm and measured, says the writer. (Getty Images)

The current global climate is tense enough as it is, with families being separated, people losing loved ones, millions of jobs being shed and economies in freefall, writes Quentin Wray.

As the world gets to grips with the true horror of the Coronavirus pandemic, we have become addicted to the news.

When that news is composed of "alternative facts" then we have a problem. 

From Donald Trump championing an unproven drug to fight Covid-19, 5G masts being burnt down because of the crazy conspiracy theory that they were planted by the Chinese to spread the virus, to snake oil salesmen making a range of unproven, but self-serving, claims about causes and cures, fake news has driven fear and consternation at the time we most need to remain calm. 

This means that decisions are being made on emotion not evidence, and, in all cases, it causes more harm than good. 

The world is facing more than a global health pandemic, it’s also facing an infodemic with far-reaching implications. 

Examine the damaging decisions being made by leaders and government bodies across the world, and their negative consequences in a bid to point out that whilst the world battles the deadly virus, they must also battle fake news.  

Kate Starbird of Washington State University is a leading expert on crisis informatics, which studies how information flows during crisis events, especially how information flows across what we call "technology mediated" environments, like the internet and social media.

It is also the study of human behaviour - in other words, how people respond to crisis events. 

Writing on medium.com, Starbird says that crisis events such as natural disasters, industrial accidents, terrorist attacks, and emergent pandemics are times of high uncertainty.

There are information voids, things we just don’t know yet.

"And the 'facts' of the situation are dynamic. In other words, they change as new information forces us to update our understanding of what is going on." 

This, understandably, feeds anxiety, leading to a situation where information is uncertain and anxiety is high, and our natural response is to try to resolve that uncertainty and anxiety and figure out what is going on and what we should do about it.  

This creates a rich environment for rumours and fake news to flourish and grow, increasing the risk of us to make bad, and potentially deadly, decisions. 

News sites and social media platforms have all tried to put in place stringent policies to fight the spread of fake news.

Even with these restrictions, it seems that people are so keen for answers, that they will believe anything … even if makes no sense. 

In Iran, spurred on by social media, people conflated stories about a British man curing himself by drinking hot toddies, a combination of whisky, honey, lemon, cinnamon and cloves, and the importance of alcoholic hand sanitiser to come up with the idea that drinking methanol cured Coronavirus.

People died.  

Around the world, including in the UK, ridiculous rumours that 5G technology was responsible for the spread of Coronavirus have led to arson attacks on masts and threats to workers.

Unfounded rumours about the harm 5G would do were rife long before the Coronavirus came along, and this is just the latest wagon its opponents are hitching themselves to.

This is a very dangerous and volatile situation.  

In the US, there has been a boom in cottage industries claiming to have the Coronavirus cure.

Be it drinking chlorine dioxide (bleach), using air purifiers or drinking silver and there has been at least one death from someone self-prescribing chloroquine, an antimalarial drug not sanctioned for use against Coronavirus.

This was on the back of vocal support for the "treatment" by US President Donald Trump.  

The World Health Organisation, which should be leading the global fight against Covid-19, has come under fire for its many missteps since the pandemic began.

However, its claim that "smokers are likely to be more vulnerable to Covid-19 as the act of smoking means that fingers (and possibly contaminated cigarettes) are in contact with lips, which increases the possibility of transmission of virus from hand to mouth" is a piece of misinformation too far.  

What this claim would mean for food sellers is another question, but it has been de-bunked by research from Wuhan, China which shows that: "preliminary analysis, assuming that the reported data is accurate, does not support the argument that current smoking is a risk factor for hospitalisation for Covid-19".

Even the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has waded in: "It is not yet known whether the severity or level of control of underlying health conditions affects the risk for severe disease associated with Covid-19."

Regarding vaping, another rumour spread across the internet regarding vape clouds spreading Coronavirus.

Indeed, Dr Benowitz, of the University of California San Francisco, claims the level of mucus and saliva in vapour is so minimal that it is unlikely to cause infection.  

There are many reasons to want people to get people to make sensible lifestyle choices, but hijacking a global crisis to further your goals is just wrong. 

Momentum has been building around misinformation and it has now got to the stage where it is coming to toxic fruition. 

The current global climate is tense enough as it is, with families being separated, people losing loved ones, millions of jobs being shed and economies in freefall.

It is everyone’s duty to be calm, measured and take a more thorough investigation into what may be or not be, to help flatten this curve of dangerous information.  

This is not helped by the fact that when the leader of the free world claimed that "nobody knew there would be a pandemic or epidemic of this proportion", or that "it’s going to disappear … like a miracle", or that whoever needs a test in the US can easily get one, or that he "felt it was a pandemic long before it was called a pandemic", or that hospitals were hoarding ventilators, or that "you can call it a germ".

He was lying. And people died. 

- Quentin Wray is a UK-based South African freelance writer and journalist focusing on politics and economics. He is the former editor of Business Report.

We live in a world where facts and fiction get blurred
In times of uncertainty you need journalism you can trust. For only R75 per month, you have access to a world of in-depth analyses, investigative journalism, top opinions and a range of features. Journalism strengthens democracy. Invest in the future today.
Subscribe to News24
Lockdown For
Voting Booth
President Ramaphosa has punted the idea of mandatory Covid-19 vaccinations for South Africans. This is:
Please select an option Oops! Something went wrong, please try again later.
The right thing to do. We desperately need more South Africans vaccinated to prevent further mutations and restore normality in our lives.
71% - 9345 votes
A risky strategy. Compulsory vaccinations may have unintended consequences and damage our rollout campaign.
29% - 3742 votes
Rand - Dollar
Rand - Pound
Rand - Euro
Rand - Aus dollar
Rand - Yen
Brent Crude
Top 40
All Share
Resource 10
Industrial 25
Financial 15
All JSE data delayed by at least 15 minutes Iress logo
Editorial feedback and complaints

Contact the public editor with feedback for our journalists, complaints, queries or suggestions about articles on News24.