As if the whirlpool of a global pandemic sucking the world down and drowning people in fear and frustration wasn’t enough, we are also being at risk of a dangerous “infodemic.” While we stay at home to stop the spread of COVID-19 from threatening more lives, the spread of dangerous rumours and false information ignites panic and hysteria amongst citizens. 

The World Health Organization (WHO) labels the current infodemic as the profusion of information we are being bombarded with as a result of COVID-19.

The avalanche of misinformation is deluging social media platforms, blogs, and even online news websites. According to a study conducted by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2018, fake news circulates quicker and faster than factual pieces in all categories of information.

It is true that fake news is not a new phenomenon that we are being introduced to, but the harsh conditions we are undergoing and having to stay at home is increasing our exposure and vulnerability to it. According to statistics published by NapoleonCat, the number of Facebook users in Lebanon has increased by 63,000 accounts from February 2020 until March 2020, emphasizing the increase in the use of social media during the lockdown.

Infodemic putting our lives at risk

With the aim to emphasize the seriousness of the infodemic issue, the United Nations spotlighted the threat that false information poses to our health.

According to the U.N., some of these “myths” claimed that potent alcoholic drinks, as well as some medications that are approved for other purposes, can also help infected people get rid of the virus. Others claimed that people who live in warm climates are safe. 

The only common denominator between these myths is that they can be harmful for both our physical and mental health. Some of the rumors that spread underestimated the severity of the virus, which could lead those exposed to them to neglecting the necessary measures and precautions that should be taken to avoid the virus.

In Lebanon, misinformation on COVID-19 in dogs and cats even led many to dumping their pets on the streets and to the poisoning of strays.

“False information not only is misleading and fuels anxiety but is also potentially dangerous when it suggests prevention measures or cures that are dangerous to a person’s health,” said Julie Torode, director of special projects at The Union for International Cancer Control.

The fake news that spread did not only provide people with information about cures for the coronavirus, but also with precautions that were proven to be ineffective, unnecessary, and sometimes even dangerous. 

Steps towards putting and end to false information

Knowing that social media platforms are a fertile ground where false information spreads quickly  and widely, it is important to set some policies as an appropriate solution to limit this infodemic.

Through sharing a post on his Facebook page, Facebook’s chief executive Mark Zuckerberg described a few measures that the company’s applications will be taking to limit the spread of false information. Zuckerbeg announced that after being reviewed and fact-checked, some misinformation about COVID-19 will be taken down to avoid the exposure of users to information that is neither accurate nor scientifically proven. 

“Through this crisis, one of my top priorities is making sure that you see accurate and authoritative information across all of our apps,” noted Zuckerberg.

Banning information also includes advertisements promoting medical face masks that resulted in the increase of these products’ prices, despite the fact that they were proven to be ineffective against the Coronavirus infection. 

“Out of an abundance of caution, we have decided to temporarily ban all medical face mask ads,” a Google spokesperson told the press.

World Health Organization fights COVID-19 circulating myths

Considering the abundance of false information that has been spreading all over the internet and social media platforms, WHO  launched a “MythBusters” section to protect people from the false information they might encounter.

In this section, the UN agency leading the COVID-19 response is discussing  information that is not accurate and scientifically proven and that can develop and worsen the spread of fear and frustration among people.

“With common cause for common sense and facts, we can defeat Covid-19 — and build a healthier, more equitable, just and resilient world,” said Antonio Guterres, the U.N. secretary general.