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COLUMN: Fighting an ‘infodemic’ amid a pandemic

Don’t be tricked by the lies, damn lies and nonsense shared on social media
A man with a sign that read “Question Every thing” at Vedder Road and Yale Road in April 2020 amid the COVID-19 pandemic. (Paul Henderson/ The Progress)

To point out that we can be misled on the internet is a statement worthy of Captain Obvious.

But in times of crisis, as a pandemic unfolds across the globe and health-care systems and economies are pressed to the limit, accurate information is more important than ever.

What we are seeing online is a deluge of that, but also more than our fair share of lies, damn lies and just nonsense.

The promise of the internet was one of more information, but that quickly became too much information. This is what the World Health Organization refers to as an “infodemic.”

“The [COVID-19] outbreak and response has been accompanied by a massive ‘infodemic’ – an over-abundance of information – some accurate and some not –that makes it hard for people to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance when they need it.”

• RELATED: VIDEO: WHO working with Google to combat coronavirus misinformation

• RELATED: VIDEO: Facebook to warn users who ‘liked’ coronavirus hoaxes

Two Canadian social media researchers, Philip Mai and Anotoliy Gruzd, have been monitoring COVID-19 misinformation, and since the first presumptive case in January, they write, in an article in Policy Options, there have been nearly 2,000 false and unproven claims recorded by Google Fact Check Tools.

These false narratives, which often make there way into memes that are wittingly and unwittingly shared on Twitter and Facebook, come in different themes: fake cures; speculation on the origin; diminishment of the seriousness; race-baiting, and more.

We are not scientists here at The Progress, nor are we science writers, but what we do as journalists is look for the truth. We report on what politicians tell us, how their opponents respond, and when it comes to reporting on this COVID-19 pandemic, we rely on the what scientists and health professionals say.

As Washington Post health and science editor Laura Helmuth puts it, reporters should be looking to infectious-disease and public-health experts for information, not looking to self-declared experts who attempt to turn truth on its head.

“Lots of misinformation is circulating about coronavirus, and this problem will get worse as the outbreak does,” she wrote in a tipsheet early on in the pandemic. “Some politicians are minimizing the danger, some quacks are trying to sell sham treatments or protections, and some anti-vaxxers are weaving coronavirus into their conspiracy theories about vaccines.”

Don’t believe the nonsense you see on social media (some of it shared by individuals here in Chilliwack).

You also won’t see much acknowledgement of this misinformation in these pages or in our news stories because it is that, misinformation. That’s not because the media is hiding something or part of some cabal, it’s because we work with what we know is true, and there is a danger in even acknowledging those who would spread lies.

This is called avoiding false balance.

“Experienced health, science, and environment reporters know not to give equal time to creationists, climate change deniers, anti-vaxxers, or flat Earthers,” Helmuth explains. “There’s no need to tell some ‘other side’ of coronavirus when the other side is nonsense.”

In my experience there are three types of people who share misinformation and conspiracies online, I’ll call them instigators, ideologues and the ignorant. Instigators, a rare breed, just like to stir the pot and maliciously attempt to deceive.

The most common are ideologues who have agendas and ideologies so hard felt that facts cannot dissuade them, so they find “alternative facts to fit their worldview.” Think here of the Libertarian who fights public health orders because they infringe their freedom, or “natural persons” who invent ways not to pay taxes.

The third, the ignorant, are those tricked by the first two. Ignorant may be too harsh of a word, naive is better, and while nothing can be done about the first two, these are people who we all need to help.

When you see someone spreading lies and misinformation, it’s best to direct them to legitimate sources.

While we will get through this pandemic, the repercussions of the infodemic will be harder to overcome.

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