Coronavirus and the Media

As the coronavirus continues to make an impact at a global and local level, and as more people are self-isolating in an effort to promote social distancing, the media are a key actor in informing the ordinary person about what  the virus is, what to do and what the next steps are. It is a huge advantage to be able to access vast amounts of information quickly via a diverse number of platforms (TV news, social media, WhatsApp groups, etc.). However, there is also the ugly side of information overload, as people are exposed to news that is not only not helpful but in fact detrimental to their situations (and those of their communities, if they are possibly spreading the virus to others inadvertently).

 “Social media is both offering a window into our collective response to the coronavirus outbreak, as well as shaping our reaction in the first place — for good and for ill” (De La Garza)

The spread of ‘fake’ news

Many of us rely heavily on social media as a key information source in difficult times. As many countries initiate states of emergencies, they are also using social media to alert citizens to any updates and restrictions being enforced. Social media has become the ‘go to’ information provider for many people, with 330 million monthly active users on Twitter and 145 million daily users. Social media use worldwide is expected to reach 2.96 billion people in 2020, which makes these platforms prime targets for those wanting to spread fake news.

The prevalence of fake news or disinformation on social media has already prompted Twitter to issue a statement that it will remove any tweets that it considers to contravene its safety rules. The social networking site said “we will enforce this in close co-ordination with trusted partners, including public health authorities and governments, and continue to use and consult with information from those sources when reviewing content”.

As people increasingly seek information to dispel the fear of the unknown, many are being lured to information that claims to provide bogus cures or claims about a vaccine. In addition, much other disinformation relates to conspiracy theories about where the virus started and whether it was manufactured. Governments, scientists and charities are all working to counter these types of claims. For example, the WHO has a ‘myth-busing’ resource to counter fake claims and includes information such as: taking a hot bath does not prevent it; cold weather, snow, garlic and hairdryers cannot kill it; and vaccines against pneumonia do not protect against it.

Finding credible sources

As news media throw words like ‘lock-down’, ‘quarantine’, ‘cabin fever’ and other catchy but scary phrases around, it becomes more important to find sources of information that are credible, based on science, but also easy to understand. What becomes important during this time is to filter information and perhaps adopt a local and global strategy – use local community networks on social media to stay tuned to what is happening around you, and refer to reliable global sources to get the big picture. At the local level, Prof Jeff Hancock says community forums are useful, because they are “reflecting how society is thinking and reacting to the crisis…allowing society to sort of talk its way through what is an unprecedented kind of threat”. Finding community forums which are offering support to vulnerable populations and provide an outlet for volunteering are becoming more popular and are a good way to stay connected with those around you.

At the global level, looking for sources of information from large reliable organisations such as the World Health Organization, the United Nations, public health departments at universities, and verified national governments. Increasingly, “scientists and other public health experts are also using social media to more directly engage with the public or discuss emerging research”. One example is Prof Marc Lipsitch, who is Professor of Epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health and who tweets regularly about the work he does and those of his peers. Ordinary people can tap into the work of reputable scientists who are sharing important information by linking and following the people that scientists such as Prof Lipsitch follow. Rather than trying to find your own experts, use the resources from already-established experts to help point the way. Specht & Gimenez provide six points on how to be critical and ‘read like a scientist’ when finding information online.

“Disinformation experts say it’s more important than ever for those with accurate information to be sure they’re being heard” (De La Garza)

Scientists are increasingly playing their part to debunk fake news by making their experiences, their research and their findings available to the public via social media. TIME writes that

“social media – Twitter in particular – has been a significant tool for scientists who can counter misinformation with accuracies and research. The sharing of information and updates on Novel Coronavirus by members of the science and medial communities has grown organically, and many scientists, doctors and other experts have accumulated thousands of followers”.

What can humanitarian organisations be doing to counter misinformation?

Large international NGOs can be at the forefront of countering misinformation and fake news as the pandemic spreads globally. Often, these organisations are already accustomed to ensuring accurate information is available during humanitarian crises and other disasters, and can be using these skills to promote accurate and timely information during today’s worrying events. Some of the ways in which INGOs can be promoting reliable information include: a) tapping into networks, particularly those that work in the health sector; b) sharing information on the ground; c) circulating information from reliable sources through their own social media accounts.

“The prominence of fear as a theme in reports of the coronavirus suggests that much of the coverage of the outbreak is more a reflection of public fear than informative of what is actually happening in terms of the spread of the virus.” (Wahl-Jorgensen)

INGOs are well-equipped to collate information gathered at country level into global trends that provide a big picture view of what experiences on the ground are. They can also work more closely with the mainstream media to promote reliable information and shift the narrative we are currently seeing around fear, panic and negativity to one that promotes unity, humanity and solidarity in the face of uncertainty.

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Written by Dr Vanessa Malila

Research and Development Officer