Diluting the COVID-19 infodemic

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We are living in the age of the conspiracy theory.

A combination of genuine fears, the proliferation of social media and – oddly – inadequate access to reliable information mean that conspiracy theory mongers are having a field day with COVID-19 and the various vaccines that have been developed to contain the new coronavirus.

The United Nations World Health Organisation has an interesting term for this information glut that has accompanied the COVID-19 pandemic: it calls it an “infodemic”.

As far back as February 2020, WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus warned foreign policy and security experts that, “We're not just fighting a pandemic; we're fighting an infodemic.”

The UN Department of Global Communications subsequently said an infodemic was an excessive amount of information about a problem, which made it difficult to identify a solution, adding that “Infodemics can hamper an effective public health response and create confusion and distrust among people.”

Infodemic is a fusion of "information" and "epidemic/pandemic", and refers to the rapid spread of facts, rumours and outright lies, fuelled by real fear, genuine concern, journalistic laziness and people with too much data in their mobile phones.

Inasmuch as the term is gaining currency now, it was coined nearly two decades ago, in 2003 to be precise, by political scientist David Rothkopf in a column in the Washington Post when the SARS outbreak shook humanity and caused a panic.

Rothkopf wrote, “What exactly do I mean by the ‘infodemic’? A few facts, mixed with fear, speculation and rumour, amplified and relayed swiftly worldwide by modern information technologies, have affected national and international economies, politics and even security in ways that are utterly disproportionate with the root realities. It is a phenomenon we have seen with greater frequency in recent years — not only in our reaction to SARS, for example, but also in our response to terrorism and even to relatively minor occurrences such as shark sightings.”

This is what the world has to contend with today as the second wave of COVID-19 remorselessly sweeps the globe and governments start rolling out mass vaccination campaigns.

National Geographic’s Jillian Kramer wrote an interesting article about the matter recently (“Why people latch on to conspiracy theories, according to science”), and we will quote her at some length here.

“During times of turmoil, the explanations provided by conspiracy theories and other falsehoods can be even more appealing — though not impossible to discourage or resist.

“People use cognitive shortcuts — largely unconscious rules-of-thumb to make decisions faster — to determine what they should believe. And people experiencing anxiety or a sense of disorder, those who crave cognitive closure, may be even more reliant on those cognitive shortcuts to make sense of the world, says Marta Marchlewska, a social and political psychologist who studies conspiracy theories at the Polish Academy of Sciences,” Kramer writes.

Inasmuch as it is easy to dismiss the claims flying around as the work of goofballs and unhinged characters, many of these conspiracy theories are – in their inadequate ways – attempts by ordinary people to make sense of the shifting ground beneath their feet.

But good intentions aside, the infodemic makes it so much harder for the world to holistically deal with the viral pandemic it is facing.

It is creating unsubstantiated fear of doctors and medicine, and creating resistance to vaccination at a time mass campaigns are being rolled out.

In addition, indications from surveys conducted across the world are that people who believe the conspiracy theories are less likely to adhere to basic health protocols such as wearing masks, sanitising and observing social distancing requirements.

Kramer adds, “Another psychological factor that can lead to belief in conspiracies is what experts call ‘collective narcissism’, or a group’s inflated belief in its own significance. Marchlewska’s research suggests that collective narcissists are apt to look for imaginary enemies and adopt conspiracy explanations that blame them.”

This can be seen in the incoherent claims that COVID-19 was created by the West as a population control tool, despite everyone knowing that the virus originated in China. Related to this is the claim that the vaccines are designed to make African women infertile or to alter DNA, regardless of an abundance of public information on how vaccines work.

In addition to this, surveys also show that groups tend to be influenced by their political, social and economic leaders.

This means our leaders have to be extremely careful about what they say in public in relation to the virus and the vaccine. If anything, they also have to be careful what they say in “private” as technology has had the effect of blurring the lines and eroding the boundaries between the public and personal spheres, especially for influential people.

And then there is the very real matter of deaths that have been linked to the vaccine. There have been reports of such deaths in Europe and the United States, and this is fuelling the belief that the vaccine is unsafe, tainted or even a hoax.

What seems to be escaping some people in this regard is that there is no COVID-19 vaccine that is 100 percent effective. All the vaccines that have been produced so far range between 91 and 96 percent effectiveness. In India, the first two days of vaccinations returned adverse side-effects in just 0,2 percent of beneficiaries – far below the four to nine percent margin.

In addition, there are other factors at play, such as underlying health conditions on the part of recipients which may trigger negative reactions to vaccination.

What all this speaks to is the urgent need for health and government authorities to improve communication so that accurate information is put out to dilute the infodemic.

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