Covid-19: Practice information hygiene to deal with disinformation, experts say

NEW DELHI: Is it the greatest information challenge of our time? That's the central question that four experts addressed as they discussed the consequences of the highly contagious disease worldwide at the Bennet University webinar on Covid-19.

In the hour-long session, experts discussed the causes and dangers of misinformation and false news, and also proposed to counter it.

They delved into the reasons that made the World Health Organization (WHO) recognize the emergence of an 'infodemic', a phenomenon that leads to an over-abundance of information - some accurate and others not - that makes it difficult for people to find trusted sources and reliable guidance when they need it.

Pandemics and infodemics are parallel. They also have a number of similarities. Both take advantage of our complacency. And often our sense of urgency in dealing with both comes too late to make a difference, said Eoghan Sweeney, a German. online verification expert, when he opened the session titled 'Battle against disinformation and conspiracy theories'.

As the experts spoke, it became clear that the pandemic has led to global challenges. But they also noted that information hygiene can lead to a safer world for everyone. Right now, while maintaining personal hygiene is important to us, it's also important to practice information hygiene, where we think about our forwards and messages, said the professor, principal, UK.

Nielsen, noting the confidence gap between news sources and their consumers, also said it was important that various stakeholders work together to curb the spread of misinformation. Senior politicians, celebrities and influencers should really think about what they post online because they get a lot of people's attention, he said, adding that top-down disinformation spreads more quickly.

The experts also noted the importance of clear and transparent government communication channels to deal with the pandemic, and emphasized the role that technology giants can play in ensuring that authentic news reaches ordinary people. Irene Jay Liu, Leader of Google's APAC Region News Lab, guided the audience through the steps the search giant has taken to combat misinformation. The fact-checking panels and the ranking of news articles from top authentic sources in search engine results are steps in the right direction, he said.

Sumaiya Shaika, a neuroscientist and founder of alt news science, a verification website, spoke of the efficacy of hydroxychloroquine tablets as a Covid-19 cure, noting that the research work that did this was not foolproof. It also established the danger of promoting unscientific and unverified claims, saying they can lead to increased exposure to the virus.

A major problem with disinformation these days, when people are supposed to practice social distancing, is that it encourages reckless behavior, he said, referring to an instance in which an Indian minister claimed that spending a few hours in the sun would be doing that the virus loses its potency.