The new coronavirus disease outbreak has already upended human life on a scale not seen in modern times. And the widespread dissemination of misinformation on social media is doing nothing but exacerbating human sufferings by creating a great deal of confusion and misunderstanding about the current issues. Many countries around the world have imposed either full or partial lockdown measures to tackle the pandemic, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus which has already killed over 300,000 people and left four millions of others infected worldwide. As a result of the lockdown, people are forced to stay inside their homes, hoping the situation to get better. While holed up in their home to protect themselves from the virus, people are consuming vast amounts of media, particularly news, online. A study from Flixed released in March showed that social media like Facebook and Twitter are the dominant platforms from where people are having information about the illness in the U.S. In countries like Nepal where the use of internet is growing exponentially, the scenario is no different. People are regularly seeking out updates and other information related to the pandemic and the virus from social media. But unfortunately, social media are flowing with misinformation regarding conspiracy theories about the coronavirus, raising serious questions about the way people are informed. Wary of growing circulation of false information about the virus, Director-General of the World Health Organisation (WHO) Tedros Adhanom declared in mid-February at a gathering in Germany that the world is not just fighting an epidemic but also fighting an infodemic. WHO has defined infodemics as an excessive amount of information about a problem, which makes it difficult to identify a solution. “They can spread misinformation, disinformation and rumors during a health emergency. Infodemics can hamper an effective public health response and create confusion and distrust among people,” the WHO stated. In this extraordinary time, media has its most important role to play to combat misinformation. But ignoring the sensitivity of the situation, some media have been recklessly circulating their contents without proper fact-checking and consulting reliable sources, helping spread misinformation. Even in the very sensitive contents, they do not include the kinds of elements that are needed in authentic news or articles. The business of clickbait has captivated these media, The media supposed to aware public with factual news are much more concerned about earning money, disseminating news items that have catchy headlines but in reality they are nothing but fake news. Fake news contents related to virus spread immensely fast. The rumoured headlines like ‘Russia unleashed 500 lions to keep people indoors during lockdown’, ‘The corona pandemic is fake and truly a farce’, ‘Covid-19 emerged through laboratory manipulation’ were seen in different online portals. The fake information was not only found in the headlines of news articles; it was also found in a numbers of audio clips, reports and manipulated pictures which spread like a wildfire in social medias and become source of news headlines for various news sites. Due to such unethical practice, enormous flak was received by entire media industry. In Nepal, to restrain the flow of fake news, the Press Council Nepal, the country’s press regulator, shut down 25 unregistered websites which breached the council’s code of conduct. All of them were found actively engaged in disseminating fake news. Fake news or contents do no good to society, specifically during such a situation of pandemic as they may mislead the audience, pose different kind of threats, seriously traumatise people and create terrors among the people. Reportedly, believing fake news about COVID-19 can lead some people to anxiety, stress and even depression. During the crisis, disseminating fake news contents can circulate surprisingly. These days, the fake contents are spreading as fast as virus itself. Even during the 2015 devastating earthquake of Nepal, large number of fake news stories were disseminated in and outside Nepal. These days, verifying the authenticity of news has been one of the toughest tasks for everyone. Even for a person like me, who studies journalism, it at times gets difficult to distinguish between fake and genuine news contents. To make sure people stay away from fake contents, UNESCO has been actively leading efforts to counter falsehoods and promote facts about the virus. The organisation is also helping people to become more critical about the contents that are being presented to them online and elsewhere as fact so that they are less likely to believe and spread falsehoods. UNESCO officials have pointed out some common examples of disinformation related to the virus such as encouraging to take medication approved for other purposes but not clinically proven as being effective against COVID-19. Since fake news contents during pandemic can have serious impacts, the concerned authority and other media related organisations should come up with effective strategies to combat disinformation. In order to discourage fake information, mainstream media should act more responsibly as people tend to check mainstream media for verification if they come across any sensitive news from the unpopular marginal media.
(Sangroula is currently pursuing Master’s Degree in Journalism at the Central Department of Journalism and Mass Communication, TU.)