Stay safe and go back to the newspaper this pandemic

This article was first published in Deccan Chronicle. Views are personal.

It is arguably easier to deal with the coronavirus than it is to deal with misinformation about it. The key difference is that when dealing with the former, you have your work cut out for you. Maintain social distancing, close borders, flatten the curve, and build capacity in the national healthcare system. When it comes to dealing with misinformation there is no one set of steps you can take to definitively win the battle.

We did not need a global pandemic to realise how big a challenge misinformation is, but it helps. In India and abroad, we have seen some spectacular consequences of spreading misinformation. In the UK and Netherlands, conspiracy theorists spread misinformation claiming that 5G cell towers were spreading coronavirus. As a result of which, some 50 towers were burnt in the UK and 16 in the Netherlands.

Closer to home, when PM Modi asked citizens to light candles and make noise for 10 minutes, WhatsApp was rife with networks of misinformation. People claimed that the rise in temperatures or the chance in decibel levels would kill the virus. Even if you have not been subject to any of these messages, you have likely heard that Indore locals or Muslim mobs attacked health staff and attacked doctors who went to treat them.  To put it mildly, it does not make any sense to attack doctors during a pandemic. Until you read Indian Express’ report that fake WhatsApp videos were circulated in localities claiming that healthy Muslims are being taken away and injected with the virus were doing the rounds of Tatpatti Bakhal and adjoining localities.

Misinformation is so potent because social media is an excellent tool to spread narratives and reinforce beliefs, as opposed to television. Imagine a scenario when you are viewing protests live through news on a television screen. In all likelihood, all you can see is a hoard of people fighting with the police or marching down an aisle with slogans printed on charts.  The information you take in is largely what is visible on the charts or what the anchor at the time is saying.

Compare that to how you observe a protest on social media. On Twitter, when you follow a trending hashtag, it will show you the video of the protestors or the slogans they carry. In addition, you will also be able to look at what most people are saying or thinking about during the protests. This helps absorb a narrative a lot more quickly than a news anchor would.

In times of panic, like protests or a pandemic, the narratives thrive and get a larger audience. This leads to more engagement and more content. It is a vicious cycle that reinforces itself. That’s how it becomes easy to believe that 5G towers are spreading the virus or that doctors have come to inject you with the virus and not to treat you.

It’s hard to say whether most misinformation is a result of malice or stupidity. But when it comes to tackling the infodemic, there are not a lot of generally accepted truths in the area.  The broad goal is clear. We need to re-evaluate the importance we afford to social media in our news diet. To anyone who hasn’t been living under a rock, it is evident that WhatsApp is not a credible source of information.

In that spirit, it is easy to go to news sources that are free and convenient to access, such as Twitter and Facebook. It is even better when the news comes to you through push notifications on WhatsApp. However, when we rely on these sources for the news, there is no assurance that we actually get the news.

Quality journalism and information that comes as a result of it is a commodity. Like most commodities, it might make sense to pay for it with money (not with privacy). Paying for the news is inherently not a foreign concept. We have paid for newspapers before, and a significant number of us still do so. It may not make sense to physically hold a newspaper everyday right now, but paid digital access is a more convenient and ironically, a more natural alternative.

The trade-off is worth it. There is no end in sight to the lockdown and the pandemic. In times such as these, the value we attribute to information will increase on average. You may have a gripe with the editor about the stories s/he curates for you, but in a good news agency, there is genuine effort involved in fact checking and ensuring that consumers get both sides of a story. Any person who sends you a forward on WhatsApp will not go through any of these pains.

So this lockdown, consider paying for the news or be critical of what you consume for free.

As 5G towers in the UK and injured doctors in Indore will tell you, it is worth it.