In 2017, a panel of 50 experts were interviewed by BBC Future Now to discuss about the “grand challenges our generation is facing in the 21st century”. Most of the panelists referred to reliable information sources as one of the most pressing issues. The Oxford dictionary in late 2016 chose the word ‘posttruth’ as the word of the year, defined as, “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion that appeals to emotion and personal belief”. The dictionary acknowledged the word, considering the US presidential poll and UK’s EU referendum in post-truth politics. Regarding the belief in fake news, Pew Research Centre conducted a survey in late 2016 in the US and found that 64 per cent of adults believed that fabricated news creates confusion about the facts regarding current events. Nearly one in three U.S. adults said they often see madeup political news online; 51 per cent said they see inaccurate news; and 23 per cent said they had shared fabricated political stories—sometimes deliberately and sometimes unknowingly.
With the proliferation of social media and online news, the dissemination of unreliable news is increasing in developing countries, where people have limited digital literacy. So the reliability and authenticity of the news is not questioned, making our society highly vulnerable. The COVID-19 pandemic has greatly affected people across the world, and it has created extreme levels of fear, desperation and hopelessness among them. Unverified information, especially in the social media, has further fueled this fear and desperation. Considering the spread of false news, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has launched an initiative, ‘myth busters’, to inform global citizens and clarify the false information circulating around on various digital platforms. There was a myth that the coronavirus will not transmit in hot and humid climate, which WHO has denied. There was also false news that children and youth do not catch the virus. WHO has stated that all age groups can be infected and that those with asthma, diabetes and heart diseases are particularly vulnerable. WHO has also initiated a WhatsApp group, through which everyone can get reliable information and debunk the myths. With the proliferation of social media in the world in the last 20 years, there has been increasing circulation of spam, misinformation, disinformation and rumours. News tends to spread relatively faster on social media and has an amplified effect compared to traditional news. Especially in developing countries, opportunistic misinformation is largely motivated by political, religious and financial motive. Politically-motivated groups want to use the social media to spread misinformation to defame and discredit other political leaders or groups. Religiously-motivated groups use it for religious conversion and slander other religions. Scammers use these social media platforms to encourage purchase of their products or services, which less technology-literate people cannot easily identify and understand.
Following the same trend, there is also competition among online news portals to exaggerate and sensationalise news reports to attract the general public without considering its impact. Such acts are clearly unethical, but the responsible institutions have constantly failed to address these issues. After the outbreak of COVID-19 in Southeast Asia, many countries are faced with a deluge of fake news, with people religiously following it. The Nagaland police in India tracked the creator of a fake news report on the coronavirus and 30 others who had forwarded the message on WhatsApp. On investigation, it was found that many people just forwarded the message without verifying its authenticity, which is a criminal offence. A fake audio mentioning a coronavirus case at Norvic Hospital went viral in Nepal. This tendency to spread fake news to grab public attention is outright unethical and criminal as well. A fake news report was circulated by the prominent media channels of Nepal regarding a businessman from Birgunj who had tested positive for the coronavirus, which later turned out to be negative. Such unhealthy competition clearly reflects the extent to which even prominent news portals can go for financial profit and instant trending.
WHO has asked South Asian countries to take urgent and aggressive measures to control the outbreak of COVID-19. The control of fake news and providing essential credible information to the general public is key to dealing with the spread of the virus. The one-party state Singapore used its controversial ‘fake news legislation’, which was passed last year, to force social media operators to remove such content to handle the crisis. The wave of misinformation and rumours on COV- ID-19 will have even more impact in the near future if the general public fails to identify authentic news.
Developing countries like Nepal should look for ways that best suits the local context to ensure the reliability of news and information that is circulating in the media. Use of cutting-edge technology like interactive webportals and mobile apps with reliable data from verified sources can be one of the best ways to successfully bridge the information gap to people in combatting this virus. WHO has asked South Asian states to take urgent measures to prevent the outbreak of COVID-19. The control of fake news and providing credible information to the public are key to dealing with the spread of the virus.
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