Social media has become a fundamental part of our lives as well as increasingly responsible for driving human behaviours. The best real-time example of this phenomenon is the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, during which a lot of false information started spreading across various social platforms and increased the anxiety levels of humans to a great extent.
Right from the hypothesis that the Novel Coronavirus might be a bioweapon created in a lab to drinking bleach could help in killing the COVID-19 virus, social media became a platform of increased misinformation during the pandemic. True to the words of Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director-general of WHO, “We are fighting an infodemic along with a pandemic”.
What is an infodemic
According to Wikipedia, ‘An infodemic typically refers to a rapid and far-reaching spread of both accurate and inaccurate information about something, such as a disease. As facts, rumors, and fears mix and disperse, it becomes difficult to learn essential information about an issue.’ An infodemic generally spreads rapidly and is unreliable and makes it highly challenging to figure out a solution for a problem. Also, an infodemic can have adverse effects on individuals both mentally and physically.
One of the many perils social media users can unknowingly encounter in the online world are AI-manipulated multimedia, AI-powered automated accounts, and other various forms of harmful that are emerging in recent times. The current-day pandemic has clearly demonstrated how an infodemic could be a pressing issue for governments and nations as well.
Social media infodemic during COVID-19 pandemic
Instant and extensive sharing of medical as well as other scientific information apart from the expert communities before vetting it thoroughly (For instance: preprints) could be extremely dangerous, particularly during a pandemic. A pandemic is typically a fast-evolving situation, during which medical professionals and researchers are continuously studying and contributing to dynamic changes in government policies.
However, governments rarely make policy decisions only using empirical evidence, as they want to be seen as being in control. Also, they are faster in providing false reassurances. Saad Omer, director of the Yale Institute for Global Health, in one of his Infodemiology Conference talks, pointed out that unclear government messaging and alterations in recommendations based on newly evolving evidence, for instance, whether using masks are effective in containing the spread of the virus, can be misinterpreted as incompetence.
Conspiracy theories, misinformation, and fake news have become common in the social media age and have skyrocketed in the light of the COVID-19 pandemic. Misinformation can often, also cost lives. The absence of proper information and trust will further enable the spread of the virus, as campaigns to promote potential vaccines won’t reach the desired target and diagnostic tests may go unused.
Also, text is not the only way to spread online misinformation. Even images created for memes are increasingly used for this purpose. According to a study on US-targeted Chinese COVID propaganda that relies heavily on text images, thousands of Twitter accounts were part of the campaign called #USAVirus propaganda. Twitter later suspended nearly 38% of these accounts as part of their efforts in containing online misinformation (Influencing Overseas Chinese by Tweets).
According to a study published in the journal, Telematics and Informatics, COVID-19 has increased the levels of worry among people and also strengthened their belief in misinformation. Also, disinformation is amplifying hate speech, increasing the risk of violence, conflicts, and violations of human rights, jeopardizing the long-term outlook for advancing social cohesion, human rights, and democracy.
In this regard, the UN – General established the United Nations Communications Response initiative in April 2020, to fight the proliferation of mis- and disinformation. The UN further issued a Guidance Note on 11 May 2020, on Addressing and Countering COVID-19 related Hate Speech. The UN system as well as civil society organizations are ubiquitously leveraging their knowledge and expertise to effectively respond to the infodemic.
During the Novel Coronavirus pandemic, social media has played a major role in spreading misinformation and conspiracy theories, owing to the negative impact of which, many people used false statements as evidence to reinforce their existing political ideologies and fought with each other.
The impact of an infodemic does not end with COVID-19. Research around topics like online manipulation, abuse, and automation, along with the increasing risks of future infodemics, makes this issue a timely effort that will assist in the future development of this critical field.
Overall, it can be said that with the combined efforts from various computer science fields, models, and techniques along with the other related disciplines like political, social, and psychological sciences, countries will be able to better handle the various aspects of misinformation, abuse, and manipulation at the core, in the coming years.
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