Perhaps the greatest benefit of the Internet is the fact that it puts a nearly limitless amount of information at our fingertips and typically, we absorb what information we want and need from trusted sources, and are really not too concerned with the rest of it. Lamentably, when individuals as well as a large portion of Internet activity becomes focused on a single topic, such as we are witnessing with the coronavirus, this same near limitless source of information can work against us: much like the virus itself. In less than 2 months we’ve gone from a few scant reports from isolated, reputable locations to a full-blown epidemic of information from seemingly every corner of the Internet. While information can be extremely valuable, especially in emergency situations, too much information – as we are seeing – can conversely be just as dangerous as the problem itself.
Coming from a portmanteau of the words information, from the Latin informare, meaning ‘to train, instruct, educate’, and epidemic, from the Greek epidemia, ‘among the people/district (of a particular place, in the sense of a disease)’, an infodemic involves the spread of an overwhelming amount of information which can, in effect, blur the lines between trustworthy and false or misleading information, aka fake news. Though there is some speculation that the term originated in the writings of Lewis Carroll, the first verifiable use of the word – as well as the usage that catapulted it into widespread acceptance – occurred in a speech given by World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus on the 15 February, 2020 at the Munich Security Conference, where he stated that: “But we’re not just fighting an epidemic; we’re fighting an infodemic. Fake news spreads faster and more easily than this virus, and is just as dangerous.”
To date, fake news concerning the Wuhan virus has taken many forms, from “advice from a doctor” or “updates from journalist friend” on WhatsApp posts to fake Twitter accounts posing as hospitals to Facebook pages containing false information and, assuredly, many other forms and instances; however, much is being done to combat this. Familiar technology companies – Google, Facebook, Twitter, Microsoft, LinkedIn, Reddit and other – have taken the step of issuing a joint statement declaring that they will fight fraud and misinformation regarding the pandemic and promote official information on their respective platforms. The United Kingdom’s Department for International Development has taken the novel step of enlisting and engaging social media influencers in order to help spread accurate information to younger social media users that are more susceptible to fake news. Finally, many have enacted (or began enforcing) laws criminalising the spread of fake news with the threat of hefty fines and possible incarceration.
Of course, this creates a balancing act in many jurisdictions between upholding the ideals of free speech and open communication and attempting to stifle misinformation while providing quick access to necessary information. The question then becomes one of what is deemed necessary and truthful information and can people trust who is making that decision.
On the other hand, maybe it is just as simple as doing your own investigating, finding several informational sources that you trust, following/reading/interacting with them, and realizing that, sometimes, regardless of whether it is true or not, more information is too much information.