The internet is, perhaps, the most significant invention of modern times. We have so much to be thankful for when it comes to the ways the internet is helping us live better lives, do things faster, and get access to an ocean of information that is supposed to improve our perception of the world.
The internet also does a great job at promoting inclusivity and encouraging the idea that people can share their thoughts online with little to no censorship. Anyone can have a voice on the internet – their little corner where they can express their opinions and discuss with like-minded people. But what happens when your own beliefs and opinions are presented as facts? It results in a huge amount of misinformation that gets shared around on social media and can end up doing more harm than good.
Misinformation is not something new. Fake news has been around since forever and has always been something for the media to fight over. Still, in 2020, misinformation has become an even bigger issue, affecting elections, world politics in general, and the management of the COVID-19 crisis. It is becoming a concern for the health and safety of people all over the world, making it difficult for experts to ensure information based on real evidence reaches the masses. But what’s more alarming is that it can also become a political tool used by those ill-intended to bring false information into the mainstream and fuel their agendas.
Misinformation, disinformation, and propaganda
The word misinformation gets thrown around a lot, but how many of us actually know what it really means? As health researchers and experts point out, there is a lot of misinformation that goes around regarding health concerns, diseases, and treatment methods, so it comes as no surprise this continues to happen during the COVID-19 pandemic as well. The moment it becomes concerning is when governments and public figures start spreading these untrue pieces of information, validating them and presenting them as facts. This becomes disinformation and can be weaponized to suit one’s plans.
To make it clearer, misinformation means not having the right facts, but there is no ill intent to it. Disinformation, on the other hand, means taking false information and presenting it as real with a purpose. Unfortunately, both are present when it comes to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Research shows that most people who spread information online, especially when it comes to a topic as sensitive and novel as the COVID-19 pandemic is, believe they are doing so to help themselves and to help others. When you add in the fact that most individuals are keen to trust information that aligns with their beliefs, you can start to get the bigger picture and understand why the spread of misinformation has reached such colossal levels during the pandemic. The problem here is that influential people know this, so they know they can use the mainstream to spread their false beliefs.
This can easily turn into a form of propaganda that gets shared around and can do real harm. From influential politicians suggesting you can drink bleach to keep COVID-19 at bay to theories that claim vaccines can change a person’s DNA entirely; when this type of information comes from someone that appears to have some sort of knowledge or experience in the field it can turn into something perilous.
Are we really shutting down the right voices?
Understanding why we tend to spread information and misinformation online can help us learn why it is important to check your sources before sharing something with the world. If the vast majority of people do so to protect themselves and their loved ones, then the more reasons they have to make sure what they share online is backed by actual truth and not just rumors or twisted facts.
It goes without saying that social media platforms are playing a big role in stopping the spread of false information around, and some are doing what they can to prevent it from happening. Instagram and Twitter have both taken steps to take down false information regarding the coronavirus and vaccines, and Facebook seems to have started working on that as well. But the problem with these platforms is that they have millions of users that share millions of posts each day, so it gets close to impossible to curate everything, even with the use of top-tier technology. Some nations, especially those in the Middle East and North Africa, have spotted this as an opportunity to halt freedom of expression.
The UAE for example restricted digital liberty when they announced back in April 2020 that they will fine any person that spreads medical information relating to the COVID-19 pandemic if the information they share differs from official statements. Under the cover that they are trying to stop coronavirus misinformation from spreading, some leaders are using their power to control information that may reveal their poor management of the crisis.
In countries such as Turkey, Egypt, Algeria, and Iran, known to attack internet freedom ever since the dawn of time, people are also fined and punished for daring to question how governments are handling the pandemic or exposing real issues. Some have seen their websites banned from being accessed inside the country, others have been detained for allegedly posting “inciting” information about the outbreak, and imprisoned journalists in Bahrain are put in solitary confinement for daring to show authorities do nothing to protect prisoners from the spread of the virus.
If there is one thing this pandemic has taught us is that misinformation is always going to find its way into the mainstream. It may be because people are genuinely trying to help or because there are deeply rooted conspiracies happening around, but it is happening and combating it starts on an individual level. No matter how much something seems to align with your beliefs, it is worth checking the facts before spreading it around. Just because a person you trust goes on to support an idea, it does not mean you need to do the same, especially if their ideas do not align with the factual truth.