When the world is in lockdown and misinformation and rumours are circulating alongside information and facts on Covid-19, it is, in fact, hard to differentiate fact from fiction. The spread of misinformation can trigger mass panic and adversely impact individual health
The world has become paralysed and a large information gap has arisen due to Covid-19. A superabundance of information relating to Covid-19 on social media has emerged as a major problem.
The social media has opened up a new window of documented and researched contents, but also created an opportunity for some people to fill this space with misleading information and rumours.
When the world is in lockdown and misinformation and rumours are circulating alongside information and facts on Covid-19, it is, in fact, hard to differentiate fact from fiction. The spread of misinformation can trigger mass panic and adversely impact individual health.
Covid-19 information and international concern
The emergence of Covid-19 has increased the volume of such misleading and false information, predominantly on social media, leaving people bewildered while extracting "real information".
After the pandemic started in December in China, the search for Covid-19 on the internet has jumped from 50 to 70 percent across all generations.
Statistics suggest that in April, at least 361,000,000 videos were uploaded on YouTube under the Covid-19 classification.
Since the pandemic started, 19,200 articles have been published in Google Scholar and in March, 550 million tweets were made, that included the terms coronavirus, covid19, covid_19, coronavirus, covid-19, or pandemic.
Zarocostas in Lancet rightly pointed out the situation by stating, "In the information age, this phenomenon is amplified through social networks, spreading farther and faster like a virus".
Due to such flow of misinformation, António Guterres, the secretary-general of the United Nations expressed that "Our common enemy is Covid-19, but our enemy is also an "infodemic" of misinformation", which was also supported by Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of World Health Organisation (WHO), who expressed concern in the Munich Security Conference in February 2020 by stating: "We are not just fighting an epidemic; we are fighting an infodemic".
Social media in Bangladesh and examples of misinformation and rumours amid Covid-19
Bangladesh has been ranked as the fifth-largest internet using country in Asia as of 2017. Meanwhile, BTRC statistics show, the total number of internet subscribers reached 101.186 million in April 2020.
There is a lack of research on the rapid growth of internet browsing during the Covid-19 pandemic situation in Bangladesh. However, a study of Jargoni published in 2020 shows that searching websites have increased by 70 percent, while using social media by 61 percent.
It is an unfortunate by-product of increased internet use that online users share all sorts of disinformation and rumours - whatever they see in different sources like Facebook, YouTube, online news portals etc, without cross-checking it with valid sources because they do not even know how to verify the information.
Many examples of disinformation on Covid-19 have had impacts on Bangladeshi society.
It is a fact that rumour and misinformation spread right after the first death caused by coronavirus in Bangladesh on March 18.
Law enforcers arrested a physician for allegedly spreading rumours over coronavirus via Facebook messenger in Chittagong. In a video that went viral, the doctor blamed the government for hiding 18/19 deaths from coronavirus in Chittagong.
Interestingly, many people started to believe such rumours. Another example is that drinking the juice of thankuni leaves, of a local tree, and frequently drinking tea or hot water with ginger or garlic can cure coronavirus.
After this rumour spread, the price of ginger or garlic shot up. Similarly, in the middle of April, some websites started spreading rumours that around 20 lakh people will die from coronavirus in Bangladesh.
Various medicines were announced as the antidote for the virus and thus the prices went up and some medicines went out of stock.
For instance, the price of a drug called "doxycycline" increased from BDT 220 to 300/350 soon after it was identified as an effective medicine against Covid-19.
Many people started to believe rumours on social media that Covid-19 is a disease for the upper and higher middle-class and there is a fairly low chance of the poor being infected.
Therefore, many people became careless about taking protective measures against this virus.
During the pandemic, some of the decisions of the government were wrongly interpreted on social media, and to ease the tension, the government had to withdraw some of the decisions or clarify its position with several press statements.
Such decisions include a waiver of house rent for a month for all dwellers, postponement of bank loan and electricity bill for three months and a one-month holiday in all offices.
Some mainstream news media reported that the health minister directed government officials not to talk to media to tackle misinformation although it is detrimental to free flow of information.
What is the solution?
Institutional efforts have already been going on to combat misinformation since the WHO is setting up partnerships and collaborations to support the response to the "infodemic" by developing global resources for fact-checking, measurement and analysis, knowledge translation, risk communication, community engagement, and amplification of messages.
Subsequently, the social media platform(s) have taken a welcome step through its policy on coronavirus to tackle misinformation.
Big tech companies, such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube are racing to take down or issue warning labels to harmful, dubious and misleading content related to the pandemic.
In a new move, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram have taken an active stance on harmful misinformation about coronavirus, which is a policy shift.
Rather than using the Digital Security Act 2018' to tackle misinformation and rumour, the government should establish a media-friendly environment so that the free flow of information is ensured.
It should emphasise on the hotline to disseminate accurate information through more active telephone, mobile, website, social media tools. The government should also think of formalizing media literacy education at the secondary level.
Finally, social media users should not believe, share or promote any information without verifying from relevant authorities or credible media outlets.
Social awareness campaign like 'Sotto-Mittha Jachai Agey, Internet a share Pore' (Verify information before sharing on the internet) can also play a crucial role in diminishing rumour and misinformation during Covid-19.
Dr Pradip Kumar Panday is Professor.
Md Mamun Abdul Kaioum is Assistant Professor of the Department of Mass Communication and Journalism, University of Rajshahi.