Stop The Spread Of Misinformation
COVID-19, a disease caused by the virus known as SARS-CoV-2, is spreading across the globe at a rate unseen before in mankind’s history. The severity of the infection rate has resulted in the World Health Organization (WHO) declaring the outbreak as a pandemic on 12th March 2020.
As the virus spreads across continents around the world, so too is misinformation about the disease, so much so misinformation regarding COVID-19 has become a pandemic which has gained a life of its own.
In this day and age, when social media is widely used, information can easily be shared with but a touch of the screen. With COVID-19, we note that people are sharing misinformation based on conspiracy theories, myths and pseudoscience, regarding matters like the origin of the virus, reasons for the rapid spread, remedies for the infection, and other aspects regarding the pandemic.
With regards to the medical aspects of COVID-19, the WHO has taken the lead to debunk myths and present scientific facts on the coronavirus in its website. Some of the misinformation tackled by the WHO include claims that the virus is being spread by 5G technology, high temperatures can prevent the disease, and being able to hold your breath for more than ten seconds without coughing is a sign that you are free from COVID-19.
Most of these misinformation may seem harmless on the surface but if left unchecked could result in indifference in society vis-à-vis the real science behind SARS-CoV-2. This indifference would then lead to people doing things which can actually increase the risk of themselves getting infected by the coronavirus.
It has been reported that there are people in certain countries who regard COVID-19 as a fearmongering tactic used by politicians to gain mileage. This thinking has even reached our country when a segment of society uses the term “plandemic” to insinuate that the pandemic is a planned conspiracy at the global level to instill fear amongst the populace.
This begs the question, why is it that many people easily believe misinformation? To make matters worse, we see people easily share and spread misinformation around without first checking and authenticating the information. Psychologists have actually identified that one of the reasons behind this is information overload.
In the age of social media, we face a constant barrage of information that forces us to depend on our instincts to determine the accuracy of information that we receive. In a journal article entitled “Nonprobative photographs (or words) inflate truthiness,” a team of psychologists from the Australian National University noted that by simply accompanying a false claim with a photograph, an aura of plausibility and credibility is created.
When misinformation is then repeated and shared by many people – often appearing continuously on social media newsfeeds – the probability of people regarding it to be true would increase. In other words, a simple repetition of misinformation creates an illusion of truth to the masses.
As such, it is imperative that we do not easily spread any information that we are unsure of. It is worth checking and authenticating all information that we receive. Sharing may not necessarily be a caring thing to do, especially when the information that we share is fake news or false claims. If we are uncertain of their authenticity, then the safest action is not to share them at all.
Unfortunately, sometimes our ego gets the better of us. We want to be the first to share something we deem as important with other people. The instinctive act to share information without checking its authenticity has resulted in many fake news making its round in social media. Some of these may seem harmless, but others are not so.
Misinformation and fake news have resulted in some people regarding COVID-19 as simply another type of flu. Hence, in their minds, there is no need to look after our hygiene or to practice social distancing.
In an extreme case that took place in a province in Iran, a false claim that drinking alcohol can protect people from being infected has resulted in many people dead after drinking industrial-strength alcohol. Surely we do not want ourselves to be purveyors of false information that leads to the loss of lives.
That is why the oft-quoted verse 6 of Surah al-Hujurat in the Quran serves as an apt reminder which should not just be read, but also practiced with seriousness: “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 Quran enjoins the act of tabayyun that is authenticating any information that we receive to ascertain its accuracy and truth. The need for tabayyun is important in ensuring that we do not spread lies and falsehood to others. In essence, tabayyun should be ever-present in our online behaviour.
Muslims are reminded that serious punishment awaits those who spread lies. This is mentioned in verse 11 of Surah al-Nur in the Quran, translated thus: “Those who brought forward the lie are a body among yourselves, think it not to be an evil to you, on the contrary it is good for you; to every man among them (will come the punishment) of the sin that he earned, and to him who took on himself the lead among them, a penalty grievous.”
With regards to fighting misinformation during this pandemic, it is commendable that the Malaysian National Security Council has taken the initiative to provide clarifications to the public. Almost like clockwork, the council puts out notifications on fake news three times a day which touch on misinformation being circulated on social media.
Another government agency, the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission through its Sebenarnya portal also plays an important role in verifying information being shared in social media.
The fact of the matter is that it is not just the responsibility of the authorities to stop the spread of fake news. All of us have critical roles to play in ensuring that dissemination of misinformation is curtailed especially as the COVID-19 crisis intensifies.