In the globalised world we live there is only one thing that spreads quicker than viruses: fake news. As we’ve (or should have) learned how anti-vaxxers and their misleading information brought back deadly, previously eradicated diseases, we must prevent misinformation about the novel coronavirus strain COVID-19 from spreading as quickly as the virus itself.
You only need to look at the latest headlines to see how easily panic can set in. Now, more than ever, is a time for collaborative communication between governments and international organisations (and the media) to ensure that accurate and timely information is conveyed at the right time.
Facebook’s founder Mark Zuckerberg said his company will do whatever it takes to prevent rumours and unreliable information on the coronavirus outbreak to spread while ensuring accurate and timely information are available on the platform. But what’s behind untrustworthy news, especially about something so serious like a new life-threatening virus going around?
‘We are drowning in information while starving for wisdom,’ once said the environmentalist Edward Wilson. Social media provides a voice to anyone with an internet connection meaning it’s inevitable that we will all at some point come across misleading content. Some will blame scientists and their inability to communicate to the masses through ‘non-sciency’, lay language, others will say the lack of proper education has left gaps for people to become believers of intangible ideas regardless of proven facts. On the other hand, because information doesn’t know its frontiers, we have also got high-quality content through videos and documentaries made available for free or at affordable prices – it goes both ways and filtering the good from the bad is key.
Recent research has shown the imminent risk of further disease outbreaks and even pandemics indirectly caused by climate change. With glaciers shrinking rapidly due to rising temperatures, soon this will release in the ocean-atmosphere system several microbes and viruses that have been trapped for over 15,000 years. Disease outbreaks could potentially be the new norm and accurate and timely information will be crucial to keep humans safe on this planet.
How can we, as a society, do something about that?
First, I think it’s safe to say don’t believe everything you read. Check your sources and make sure they are trustworthy – with the spread of fake news and misinformation many independent fact-checking services have been created to better inform the general population.
Second, if you are providing information, ensure this comes in digestible, simple and transparent forms for everyone to understand.
Finally, keep (it) up to date, whether you are the audience or the source: things evolve, and information may change, and that’s totally fine as long as sources are updated accordingly.
Ultimately, the learning for all of us is that building trust is the key and that whether we consume or create the content we all have a responsibility to ensure it’s accurate, transparent and balanced. In the meantime, remember to wash your hands!