The Challenge of Verifying Information
A German philosopher, Georg Simmel, introduced the idea of “information fatigue syndrome” or “information overload.” This syndrome refers to the situation where people are bombarded with so much information that they become exhausted over time, and subsequently develop a cynical and indifferent attitude to the goings-on around them.
With social media, it is very easy for us to obtain information on COVID-19. Facts and figures are readily obtainable with a click of a button or a swipe of the screen. However, the challenge is for us to be able to discern and contextualise these facts and figures in a rational manner.
Unfortunately, verifying information is something that not many people do. Many simply regard information that they receive, especially in social media, as true. This is even more challenging when we receive a deluge of information on a daily basis.
Regarding the importance of verifying information, a research reporter, Shaydanay Urbani, who investigates disinformation online introduced the five pillars of information verification namely provenance, source, date, location and motivation. These pillars are a necessity for us to inculcate in view of the ease at which information is readily accessible with the Internet.
The first pillar, “provenance,” essentially requires us to check whether we are looking at the original piece of information. Regarding COVID-19, it is best to obtain the original information from the authority, in this instance the National Security Council and the Ministry of Health as these two authorities provide the original piece of information.
The second pillar is “source” where we need to authenticate the source of information especially when it is not sourced from the authorities. When we receive such information, it is imperative for us to check its source in order to ascertain its authenticity and credibility. If the information has its origins from an authoritative source, then there should not be any problem.
Primary authoritative source is the best source for information. However, if we are unable to establish the point of origin of the information, then we need to raise the red flag and best not to forward it.
The chain of dissemination of the information that we receive is also critical. We should identify who the disseminator of the information is. Those who disseminate the information should also be credible. In this regards, we should emulate the methodology in ascertaining the authenticity of Hadiths of the Prophet where the chain of narration (isnad) is carefully verified.
The third pillar is “date,” where there is a need to contextualise the time that the information is created. Sharing old information which has been overtaken by events can cause unnecessary uneasiness to others. Simply looking at the text without knowing the context such as time is unwise.
The fourth pillar is “location” which is critical to contextualise where the information is relevant to. Some information may be relevant only to a particular locality. If such an information is disseminated without the right context of location, it may result in anxiety.
Finally, “motivation” is the last pillar which is necessary to ascertain why the information is disseminated. Quite often, the motivation behind information dissemination is “sharing is caring.” However, it is often the case that we also receive information with the disclaimer such as: “Not sure if this is true, but just in case it is, I am forwarding it anyway.”
The fact remains that when we are unsure, it is best not to share as there is the risk of forwarding an inaccurate or worse still, false information. If this happens, sharing is no longer caring but instead, sharing becomes a tool for scaring. In this regards, as much as we are wary of the superspreader that can exponentially spread COVID-19, we should also make sure that we do not become a superspreader of unverified information or fake news.
This is why we are often reminded of the oft-quoted verse 6 of Surah al-Hujurat in the Quran, which is translated thus: “O ye who believe! If a wicked person comes to you with any news, ascertain the truth, lest ye harm people unwittingly, and afterwards become full of repentance for what ye have done.”
The reminder in the Quran needs to be heeded by all when handling information. The verse is even more relevant in this day and age when information is easily accessible by all, and information overload may easily result in people becoming cynical and indifferent.
This information fatigue can ultimately lead to complacency and the inability to act or react in a logical and rational manner. Most definitely, we want to ensure that the war against COVID-19 is won. To do so, we must be equipped with accurate facts and figures in order for us to make informed decisions regarding what needs to be done.
Disseminating inaccurate or false information would cost us not only the battle against COVID-19 but also the war, and this is something that we cannot afford.