Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Doom surfing and fact checkers prosper in Covid-19 infodemic

With so much information swirling around, especially on social media, just what should we believe?

judy dean/Flickr
judy dean/Flickr

Several terms have taken on newfound meaning in the grip of coronavirus. “Doom surfing” is one, to describe those who seem unable to remove themselves from scrolling the internet, and “infodemic” another, a term adopted by World Health Organization for the misinformation that appears to spread online faster than the virus itself.

With no country and no people immune – and with the rapid spread of Covid-19 and online misinformation about this disease – it is clear that journalism’s role in combatting disinformation has never been more important.

This is particularly keenly felt in the region, where there is a sense of dread and helplessness made worse because people around the world once again appear to have discarded lessons learned years earlier in Asia, particularly from the SARS epidemic. It has provoked a torrent of resentment toward foreigners, especially those who refuse to a wear mask. Signs have popped up in Hong Kong saying “Hey Gweilo, can’t afford a mask?”. In Australia, health professionals of Asian appearance were shunned and abused by parents at a children’s hospital.

It’s clear that high quality health information – plus journalism from trusted, professional and responsible sources that verify details before publication ¬– needs to be more easily accessed than poorly researched posts cobbled together in haste.

Covid-19 has also exacerbated a range of social and anti-social behaviours online while producing an info-torrent of material. There are the “doom surfers” looking for anything about the virus to share; the self-appointed online moral enforcers who shame others for sometimes innocuous and other times problematic actions; the internet trolls who appear to find joy in spreading fear or provoking racism; and the comedians who can bring a laugh with a clever meme, song, or video, but, in some cases, may inadvertently cause further harm.

Groaning under the weight of the torrent, the WHO label of “infodemic” is intended to convey that an excessive amount of information makes the solution more difficult to communicate clearly. To be clear, the Covid-19 “infodemic” does have real-world health impacts because it creates confusion and reduces the effectiveness of public health advice. Those who can read and understand Indonesian may find interest in work at the Kawal Covid-19 site by data scientists and other volunteers, who have been working on data-driven solutions to the problem of misinformation in recent Indonesian elections.

Health professionals want information shared online to be from a trusted source, such as a credible media outlets, recognised health and research institutions, government agencies, the WHO, or similar. But the reality is the doomsayers can’t help but share anything that comes across their feeds, quality or not. People are glued to their smart phones getting a strong dopamine fix, but also seeking practical news about how the crisis affects them, what to do, and how to help others.

Take, for example, a friend and scholar sitting in an isolated, well provisioned apartment in New York, bemused and alarmed by an urgent message from another friend in Singapore offering to arrange a car to her to flee the city immediately. Watching the craziness of the world unfold online, and panicked by fake images from New York of bodies piling up in the streets or riots of people armed with guns, the friend in Southeast Asia has been unable to determine the truth from fiction.

It’s clear that high quality health information – plus journalism from trusted, professional and responsible sources that verify details before publication ­– needs to be more easily accessed than poorly researched posts cobbled together in haste, and, in some cases, fear or malfeasance. But in an era where trust in public institutions, politicians, and news media is so low, many people appear to to have few qualms about listening to and sharing rumours and disinformation – often these are underpinned by conspiracy theories or racist sentiment – unaware that the very purpose of manipulative content is to exploit pre-existing divisions in society.

To be fair, the social media giants have been attempting to do their bit, although not always succeeding.

In the early days, Facebook initially bungled its takedown notice of all Covid-19 posts and cross-posts, removing posts linking to stories from trusted news sources, along with those from more dubious publishers. (I had personal experience of this, as shown.)

TikTok has been providing information at the bottom of every video that mentions corona, coronavirus or Covid-19. Snapchat has introduced lots of coronavirus-related stickers, such as “wash your hands” and has introduced a clever myth-slaying game. WHO even used WhatsApp to encourage users to explore its credible info line.

Unfortunately, these steps don’t always work in closed-message groups among friends, such as within WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger or Instagram. These platforms appear still to be awash with well-meaning individuals privately sharing information that isn’t quite right or even seriously wrong, making online and social media a breeding ground for fear and disquiet.

Professional journalists have long known that media content can heighten anxiety, and have worked hard on systems and warnings to ensure that their work does not make problems worse. Publishers and program producers understand the need for balance and relief, usually confining crisis-related content to defined areas and deliberately focusing other areas on alternate content, often things that will distract, relax, entertain or educate about other things going on in the world.

Largely thanks to social media, unverified Covid-19 stories and videos – particularly from China – have promulgated unfiltered graphic and disturbing descriptions and visual content, such as people dying on streets, survivors being welded into their apartments in Hubei, or later vision of the people who had died inside. These are the kinds of stories and images which traditional news media outlets seek to verify, mediate and contextualise, in order to educate and minimise needless panic.

Traditional news media outlets have long been aware of their role in not just in providing credible, tested information from appropriate authorities, but also in providing context and solutions, some of which work well online.

Right now, the paramount need is to provide the members of the public in every community around the globe with strategies for enhancing wellbeing and remaining resilient.

However, in an age of shrinking newsrooms, disappearing mastheads and a rising number of spurious alt-media popping up online, the public’s trust in traditional news media outlets needs to be restored – and quickly, lest Covid-19 sparks a media extinction event.

It is time for those citizens who have, over recent years, turned away from – or who never developed an interest in – traditional news sources to return to the fold, so they can put their trust in a reliable source of verified information that can form an important cornerstone as society moves through this global crisis.

Information-sharing needs to take on a more pro-social, responsible approach during these testing times – yet still provide invaluable outlets for humour, laughter and jokes; encourage physical exercise, yoga or meditation; remind the devout of the power of prayer and religious rituals; and ensure isolated individuals can communicate with their distanced family, friends, neighbours, peers and colleagues without fear and apprehension. The doom-saying will then fade into the past.

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