As members of an interconnected digital world, most of us must have realised the destructive impact of propaganda in the current digital age. Societies are not new to the perils of misinformation but nothing illustrated it more starkly than the pandemic.
As we saw during the Covid-19 pandemic, technology acts as a huge enabler to access information and services. However, technology can also act as a catalyst for the spread misinformation, creating insecurities and fears among individuals and communities. Misinformation feeds panic, distrust, confusion and tends to steer us away from adopting an immediate or effective action plan during any adversity (natural, human-made or otherwise).
The pandemic showed that unchecked misinformation builds distrust and affects public behaviour. When panicked and insecure, we are quick to believe misinformation even when it appears irrational.
Research has found that internet-based sources make up 91% of all Covid-19-related fake news. Soon after the outbreak of the pandemic in early 2020, there were assertions of how lemon juice up the nose could kill the coronavirus while others propagated on the miraculous powers of cow urine. Such misinformation only fed the panic and helped spread the virus.
Similarly, vaccine hesitancy was spurred by false rumours as well. Many believed that the vaccine could give them Covid-19, or in some cases makes people impotent or infertile. As a result, during the early days of the vaccination efforts, centres remained empty while thousands continued fall sick.
While social media is a great enabler, in India and other countries it played an important role in spreading misinformation about Covid-19. A study found that social media accounts for 85% of misinformation in the public sphere. This is despite the fact that platforms such as Twitter, Instagram and Facebook implemented policies that aimed to stop the spread of misinformation. The sheer number of users allowed cracks to form. Reports suggest that India is the largest source of misinformation (18%) in the world.
There are three key reasons why India claims this rank: the first is a diverse, layered information and communication infrastructure that is hard to regulate. The second is the lack of adequate information and literacy (digital and other) and information awareness among people, and long existing prejudices of conservative Indian society.
The press, media regulatory institutions and watchdogs play an important role in reducing the spread of misinformation. Indian journalists are supposed to follow the mandatory guidelines of the Press Council of India while reporting the pandemic and its related information. That mandate includes promoting evidence-based reporting within the communities they serve. However, during the pandemic, this mandate was frequently violated.
This is not to say that all journalists did not follow the mandate. There were many independent press outlets which focused on promoting correct information, with proven evidence and research. Many outlets played an important role in holding the government accountable and furthering good policy discussions. Sadly, it was popular mainstream media that fell short. Similarly self-proclaimed experts and social media influencers regularly took to social media to misrepresent or misinterpret scientific information.
In this digital age, where information is quite literally manufactured, citizens require training, especially those engaging with social media platforms, to understand the nature and veracity of this information. To help control the spread of fake news and misinformation, the government needs to educate citizens on the nature of misinformation, how to process it and what can be done to question it.
Deliberate misinformation, although stringently punishable, remains widespread even now in many media spaces. Social media platforms also need to improve upon their existing self-regulations and incorporate innovative approaches to ensure citizen and viewer-based feedback mechanisms. This is particularly critical during pandemics.
Just as we need watchdogs for content published in newspapers, we also urgently require well-implemented regulatory frameworks to curb fake news and misinformation in digital platforms and social media as they account for about 40-50% of the total viewership.
Covid-19 has highlighted the need for a strategy to curb misinformation not just in health but all spheres of public discourse. While regulation will help in curbing the spread of fake news, inculcating digital literacy among citizens and media is the need of the hour. In this age, information is power but misinformation is power without accountability. There is nothing more dangerous than that.
Akhil Chirravuri is a public policy researcher, citizen advocacy enthusiast and political analyst. Samragni Dagupta, is a theatre artist, queer writer and public policy professional associated with the The Rahaat Project.