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The days have blended, and the weeks are defined based on the newest bingeable series.
As we adopt social distancing and self-isolation measures, these attempts to reduce the spread of the novel COVID-19 virus have shifted our definitions of ‘normal’. A return to a pre-coronavirus world is unfeasible – the balance of global power, the role of multilateral agencies, the structure of international and national economies, and the patterns of social interaction and how we work, will forever be different.
More than ever, as we ‘do our bit’ by staying home, we are now dependent on digital spaces to accommodate areas of employment, educational, and social needs. Certainly, there are obvious advantages to this digital shift. One of the most celebrated is the flexibility of working arrangements and the growth of diverse online communities. Some have fostered support and provided reassurance amid the pandemic. But as we acclimatize to this new ‘normal’, it is still a reality where the foreseeable future has never looked so unpredictable before.
As the Director-General of the World Health Organization explained: we’re“not just fighting an epidemic; we’re fighting an infodemic,” where misinformation “faster and more easily than the virus.” This infodemic is characterised as an oversaturation of information. Difficulty occurs in identifying a cohesive solution for an already occurring problem. The spread of misinformation impedes effective public health responses and exacerbates an atmosphere of confusion and distrust amongst people. In attempting to soothe anxieties, individuals will often seek explanations for major events and disasters that are too alarming to be interpreted as random. Herein lies the problem: these very same online spaces can also become an echo chamber for conspiracy theories relating the current pandemic.
Conspiracy theories are in no way exclusive to the digital realm. In fact, some traditional media outlets are guilty of downplaying the crisis while others consistently use extreme language and publish distressing images, feeding trepidations in this uncertain time. Given our selective nature to prioritise sources that support narratives we believe to be true, online platforms play an integral part in circulating misinformation based on emotion. It is – as disinformation expert Brooke Binkowski explains – a tested rhetoric. “Every time there’s some sort of pandemic, the outsiders, whoever they might be, are blamed.”
Earlier this year, while the virus was largely concentrated in China, a former Australian Liberal minister claimed that the coronavirus was engineered in a lab, designed to eliminate all the “non-productive Chinese…so they don’t have to be fed.” In this interview, she asserted that the Chinese government had planned to “export the virus to the United States” as a measure to check “whether or not it is possible…to send the rest of the world into recession.” A few weeks later, U.S. President Donald Trump reiterated similar sentiments in his claims that COVID-19 was a new hoax created by the Democrats. In his narrative, the Democrats had politicised the virus as an attempt to win the upcoming presidential election. Additionally, Trump argued that their policies of “open borders” should be criticised as it directly threatens the “health and wellbeing of all Americans”.
As the wave of false news continues to overwhelm our social media channels, founder of Bot Sentinel, Christopher Bouzy, revealed how a significant amount of COVID conspiracy posts were digitally spread through bots and trollbots. These untrustworthy accounts advocate pseudo-scientific remedies and reiterated much of the above claims. This enables online participants to espouse their xenophobic and anti-immigration stances: scapegoats are identified and become a body that is held accountable for the actions of a faceless enemy. “Conspiracy theories spread most easily when they stem from fear – and so does hate.” This most obvious in the global rise of anti-Asian rhetoric, where language like “the Chinese virus” licenses racist and discriminative actions that have violently manifested beyond the online realm. Bouzy explains that, in preying on people’s worst fears, “disinformation and misinformation spread quickly, especially if it is related to a major news event, because people are actively searching for information and too often they are unknowingly sharing false information.”
We can continue to see how conspiracy theories manifest detrimental thoughts and harmful behaviours that impede society. Just this week, several mobile phone masts across the United Kingdom were vandalized and set alight. Attributed to the widely shared conspiracy theory, some celebrities and supporters argue that there is a link between 5G network masts and the coronavirus pandemic. Popularized through WhatsApp, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and more, content which appears to be exposés by ‘whistle-blowers’ falsely accuse mobile networks of spreading the virus through coronavirus test kits, and argue how the pandemic was created to hide deaths from mobile technology. Radiation experts have repeatedly addressed these health concerns, emphasizing that the virus has had a profound impact in countries without 5G capabilities, such as Iran. Responding to the misdiagnosis of COVID-19 symptoms to ‘5G poisoning’, England’s NHS National Director stated that it is “complete and utter rubbish, it’s nonsense, it’s the worst kind of fake news…[and] the reality is that the mobile phone networks are absolutely critical to us all”. In a country where the prime minister is currently receiving intensive care over his COVID-19 symptoms, the needless destruction of telecommunications services creates network outages, delaying the possibility for effective emergency response.
Despite the best efforts of health professionals and elected officials – who have answered online queries and debunked misconceptions of the coronavirus – research shows that the acceptance and rise of conspiracy theories are related to moments of crisis in society. People look for meaning and ways to cope during periods of uncertainty. Some entertaining theories claim that cartoons prophesied the outbreak, or overstate the ‘miracle properties’ of vodka, cocaine, and onions, which can supposedly “removes all viruses and bacteria including the coronavirus.” However, there is a real danger in endorsing pseudo-scientific claims and alternative treatments as legitimate health advice when preventive behaviour is perceived with scepticism and as optional.
Social media companies have promised to make a dedicated effort to combat misinformation on their popular platforms, but their reliance on artificial intelligence to moderate content is time consuming, and is often inaccurate. Fact-checking organisations are also available to investigate false claims, but as expected, these organisations are struggling to counter all of the overwhelming sources that misinform.
As netizens, we have the power to flag content that is false and misleading. It is suggested that we focus our attention on exercising our own socially approved behaviour, rather than police our friends and followers who blatantly disregard quarantine practices. Jon-Patrick Allem writes, “posting [or] forwarding…captured moments of people ignoring social distancing measures is not the most effective way to curb these behaviours. The reason is that the underlying message one could walk away with is that people are still being social. This impression could lead people to continue being social, negating the intended effect of such social policing.”
To imply that the novel virus and the increasingly high infection rate is a concoction of the ‘elites’ nefarious intentions, is quite honestly, insulting. For some, the COVID-19 pandemic will be characterised as a time of screen dependency: we were afforded the opportunity to monitor the crisis, from the safety of our homes. Before sharing or posting content that risks dehumanizing the casualties of this unprecedented virus, we should remind ourselves of the families or at-risk individuals unable to access adequate health services. We should remind ourselves of those who have been classified as essential workers: they do not have this privilege of staying and working from home. Instead, essential workers are reminded daily of the severity of this virus, and yet, they are the ones who must selflessly resume their duties.
Author’s note: Below are guidelines from the WHO – please refer to the website for further advice about appropriate conduct and commonly held misconceptions:
Drinking alcohol does not protect you against COVID-19 and can be dangerous.
The new coronavirus CANNOT be transmitted through mosquito bites.
Exposing yourself to the sun or to temperatures higher than 25°C degrees DOES NOT prevent the coronavirus disease (COVID-19).
You can recover from the coronavirus disease (COVID-19). Catching the new coronavirus DOES NOT mean you will have it for life.
Being able to hold your breath for 10 seconds or more without coughing or feeling discomfort DOES NOT mean you are free from the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) or any other lung disease.