Misinformation and disinformation around COVID-19 do more harm than the corona virus itself as it restricts one from getting accurate information about health care and disease prevention. It has increased targeted online hate speech toward individuals who are infected by the virus in Nepal and those at possible risk of infection further putting them at the risk of physical violence. This has created unnecessary trouble and fear in their lives. There has also been increase in racial discrimination and pseudo-nationalism around the world. Digital rights activists are already expressing concerns about the risk of mass surveillance of people by the state and non-state actors giving the excuse of pandemic.
Corona pandemic has been directly affecting the way we interact with one another in real life and online and has changed our behavior. The information related to the virus and pandemic we receive everyday is almost overwhelming with outpouring of news and updates from around the world. There are enough conspiracy theories about the virus and misinformation about how it could spread, prevented and cured. Much of the misinformation is based on our cultural and religious beliefs and being spread in the form of images, memes, short videos, texts, reporting, statements, blog posts, etc.
Social media platforms have provided people with autonomy to be able to produce media content instead of just being a consumer, as opposed to other media like TV, radio or print media and given multiple source of information on any subject matter. It has proven to be one of the most powerful tools in the digital age for mass mobilization and social change. However, during crisis like this, social media platforms are also used to spread misinformation and disinformation. And specially if the content feeds to emotions, they travel really fast with no fact-checking. In stress and confusion, the validity of the source is often not checked before people share it further. COVID-19 is also being called the “first social media pandemic” and the World Health Organization (WHO) is calling it an “infodemic” given the widespread misinformation and disinformation around it.
What are harms and risks of misinformation and disinformation?
- Restricts one from getting accurate information
Misinformation and disinformation are directly linked to people getting inaccurate information about their health care and disease prevention and puts them at greater risk which is against the right to health and right to information of individuals, as guaranteed by the Constitution of Nepal as well as international treaties Nepal has been signatory to. This also shadows the factual information from verified sources which are specially important given the nature of contradiction of coronavirus. As digital literacy among Nepali citizen is only 31% (2019), the lack of awareness on filtering and fact-checking, the lack of accurate information can create an environment of panic and anxiety.
- Targeted harassment and trolling
There are many conspiracy theories as to how coronavirus spreads leading to targeted harassment toward certain communities and nationalities in real life and online. In the social media, we can see hate speech against the people who left Kathmandu after announcement of the lockdown, mostly because of the classism in Nepal society fueled by disinformation about them. There has been sharing of mal-information as well, where several list of passengers from different flight that flew to Nepal were leaked with personal details of individuals which led to online abuse toward the individuals in the list. Among them, a 19-year-old girl who had a travel history to France was slut-shamed and threatened of rape.
- Curtailment of freedom of expression
The terminologies around misinformation and disinformation are often used without understanding the effect it could have. Often “fake news” is used by media and publication, which is inadequate and has no clear meaning to describe the complex phenomena of mis-and dis-information. It has also been used to justify censorship laws and curtail freedom of expression and press freedom. Malaysia is an example where it passed anti-fake news law before the election in 2018. Nepal government has been hostile toward freedom of expression in the past years, be it be through the infamous Information technology bill or monitoring social media activities of journalists. So we can only hope another repressive law is not introduced in the name of ‘managing misinformation and disinformation’. There has already been an arrest of a Nepali citizen for producing and sharing of an audio clip related to COVID-19 case in Nepal. It is the government’s responsibility toward to provide the citizens with reliable information and data through their websites and press releases so that people could follow those accurate information, instead of just putting those who spread “fake news” behind the bar.
- Surveillance from the state and non-state actors
Tracking of individuals who are infected by the virus and are at possible risk for public good is necessary but it depends on how it is being done. The collected information of people who are infected and who are at possible risk should be used responsibly taking into account the right to privacy of these individuals. The information and data that are collected are to be stored safely and used ethically. Given the lack of data protection law and mechanism in our country this is something unlikely to happen. Corona pandemic should not be an excuse for mass surveillance by the state or non-state actors including privacy companies, social media platforms, etc.
- Spread of rumors
Rumors in relation to the pandemic created artificial scarcity in the market and panic-buying was visible even in Kathmandu. People who could afford bought enough supplies including cooking gas. This puts the underprivileged under further disadvantage. Groups with an intent to spread disinformation might use opportunities such as the pandemic to spread hatred toward certain communities and further spread misinformation related to the pandemic.
- Language / Access barrier
The World Health Organization publishes information in UN official languages. The government of Nepal uses formal Nepali language to disseminate information. This denies access to people who do not speak or cannot understand the language. Moreover, the formal Nepali language is dissimilar to colloquial Nepali language and even amongst the native speakers many government disseminated information might not be understandable. While many volunteers are taking upon themselves to translate resources into local languages, it is completely unfair for the government of multi-lingual state to invest in just one language.Moreover, the population who cannot read and people with disabilities also have difficulties in accessing the information due to lack of inclusive productions of these information.
What can you do as an individual to counter misinformation and disinformation?
- Before you share any content on social media, check the source:
Don’t believe in any information just because it is shared a lot or shared by someone you trust. Check the source of information. Is it from an authorized media or publication, a national or international health institution, or your trusted local organization/ community radio/local newspaper? If you do not find authorized source of the information, do not share or forward it further.
There are platforms that can help us check facts such as Snopes, EUvsDisInfo, etc. South Asia Check has been debunking the myths and misinformation around coronavirus in the Nepali context. You can cross check the information using different search engines (Firefox, Google, DuckDuckGo, etc.) to find any reporting on it. Don’t share just any information via messaging apps or in your social media until then. If you come across any misinformation in your online circle, inform them about it and encourage them to delete/not to share.
- Working to change human behavior
In the situation where the information is overloaded, we need to act smarter to change human behavior in terms of consuming and sharing of misinformation. People should be skeptic about the information they consume and the sources from which that information comes should also be under scrutiny.
- Use of media and social media responsibly
Media can debunk the misinformation after fact-checking. Improve the heading of the articles instead of focusing on click-bait. When you find misinformation being circulated in your network and community, direct them to the trusted source or share the content in the language they can understand. Some reliable sources are WHO Information Network for Epidemics, COVID-19 Nepal and Nepal Corona Information. Digital literacy becomes important here so people know how to navigate truth and facts amid tons of information around them. Media can also work to make government responsible to share correct information and data to the public to control spread of rumors and misinformation.
- Use of technology
While using the fact-checking tools we already have, we can make use of more tools for fact-checking and verification. Technology companies could be supported to build such technology by other stakeholders through financial or human resource support. We need mechanism and technology to counter misinformation and disinformation along with legal action against those who spread those information. In Taiwan, technology was used in many ways from managing the panic-buying of face-masks to countering misinformation and disinformation.
- Support social media platforms and make them accountable
If you think any social media content could be misinformation, report them. Social media are also working to counter misinformation. Companies like Facebook and Twitter have been trying to combat misinformation through content moderation and by providing factual information related to COVID-19, however, we can do our share of work too. While we support and appreciate the effort of social media platform, we also need adequate non-English content moderation.
By Shubha Kayastha
(Shubha Kayastha is Executive Director at Body & Data that works in digital rights from the lens of gender and sexuality in Nepal)