BENGALURU: Under everyday circumstances, few people would consider drinking bleach, eating garlic or taking a bath in cow dung as an antidote to a pandemic. But these are not ordinary times and the spread of Covid-19 virus has aroused an outpouring of strange and fake news on social media. Conspiracies date back to the great plagues, which killed millions in Europe. The Black Death was ascribed to the Jews, in turn, triggering brutality against the community. In the 1980s, the Russian intelligence agency (KGB) ran a sophisticated disinformation campaign ‘Operation Infektion’ to spread the canard that HIV/AIDS was the consequence of an American biological weapon gone askew.
Amidst panic, the US Health and Human Services Department faced a different threat – a cyber-attack falsely proclaiming a national quarantine in the US. While the authorities went into damage control, experts are warning of a steady stream of more such phishing attacks, with cyber criminals preying on the information void. This is a new front in the war against pandemic; combating rumours, misinformation and flat-out lies that will swamp the internet.
Ever since the onset of Covid-19, people from all walks of life are offering their own theories, creating confusion, panic and overreaction by citizens who are hoarding supplies and sanitisers. The extent of disinformation has compelled World Health Organization to launch a website dispelling fake claims and theories. Social media sites are also flagging false posts and removing them from their platforms.
When a pandemic strikes, we fight on two fronts: The first is about understanding the disease, researching a cure and inoculating the population. The second is more complex: fighting the deluge of rumours and misinformation affecting public health.
Combating fake news: Fake news must be countered instantly by developing counter-narratives and disseminated ideally through the same channel through which it originated. The protagonist of such news always remains dubious. Fake news has both a human and technical side, so does any potential solution. Solutions to misinformation need to involve the users themselves. Fake news include letters stating that they are from the Prime Minister’s Office or health department. The Indian Government has a social media handle called the Press Information Bureau Fact Check where people can verify if the news is genuine.
— The writer is founder and president, Synergia Foundation, a city-based strategic think tank Wacky, Weird and Fake