Flattening the Infodemic curve

August 26, 2021

The following article by the Consumer Council of Fiji has been authored solely to create awareness and educate Fijian consumers on the importance of obtaining information regarding the COVID-19 pandemic only from official sources and not through the infamous coconut wireless. The article draws upon advisories and publications by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and Spinoff New Zealand.

Consumers are anyone who acquires goods or services therefore, every Fijian is ultimately a consumer and as consumers, you have the right to information and to be educated about issues which affects you. However, we as humans are curious and inquisitive species who are always keen to navigate the world around us and look for new and innovative means to address issues. Consequently, over the last year, the proliferation of misinformation on social media platforms has been faster than the spread of Corona Virus Disease (COVID-19) and it has generated hefty deleterious consequences on health and economies amid the global disaster. The Director General of the World Health Organisation last year declared that the COVID-19 epidemic is going through an Infodemic – the overabundance of information that happens during an outbreak or epidemic. In line with this, Antonio Guterres, the Secretary-General of United Nation, tweeted that “Our common enemy is COVID-19, but our enemy is also an ‘infodemic’ of misinformation” on his personal Twitter account. As Siouxsie Wiles and Toby Morris of the Spinoff New Zealand narrates in one of their articles, one of the ways in which humans do this is by seeking out and sharing information – lots and lots of information.

Infodemic and Consumer Issues

Since the beginning of the current global pandemic, there has been thousands of researches carried out and made available for public consumption. Apart from these, there are also government advisories from around the world, news articles, opinion pieces, vloggers, bloggers, social media celebrities and information stemming from family and friends. In the context of Fiji, due to the widespread use of social media and closely knit communities, infodemic has further surged due to coconut wireless – where people share information through talanoa or social media and many a times, the sources of these information are tittle-tattle, unreliable and in instances have caused and are bound to cause havoc for Fijian consumers, the Fijian economy and our fight against the deadly pandemic. The prevalence of infodemic has resulted in other issues which has impacted consumers not only internationally but locally as well. These are;

• Panic buying;

• Hoarding of essentials;

• Price gouging;

• Stress and in some instances, collapse of supply chains;

• Masking healthy behaviours and promoting erroneous practices that increase the spread of the virus;

• Promotion of unproven and false treatment and/or cure for COVID-19; and

• Scamming consumersthrough pyramid schemes, sale of unapproved COVID-19 testing kits and other get rich quick schemes.

Infodemic also diverts resource and attention of Governments and health authorities creating additional burden and challenges in the fight against the virus. Remember, the epidemic is not manmade, but infodemic is – so it becomes our responsibility to fight this infodemic. In order to flatten the infodemic curve, Fijians must learn the difference between information, misinformation and disinformation. It is highly likely that you are being exposed to all of these on a daily basis.

Information, Misinformation and Disinformation

According to the World Health Organisation, information can be categorized as news, articles, advisories and other communications regarding COVID-19 that are accurate to the best of our current knowledge. An example of this is that Covid-19 stands for coronavirus disease 2019 and it is the disease caused by the virus SARS-CoV-2 that is causing a global pandemic. Furthermore, WHO labels the term misinformation as false information being shared by people. However, the people sharing this type of information do not know that the information is not factual but passed it on to family and friends thinking that it may be beneficial to them. For instance, people sharing information on social media that taking hot baths can kill COVID19 virus. At the other end of the spectrum is disinformation. Unlike misinformation, this is false information that is created with the intention of causing harm. That harm could be to a person, or group of people, or to an organisation or even a country. Disinformation generally serves some agenda and can be incredibly dangerous. During this pandemic, we are seeing it being used to try to erode our trust in each other and in our government and public institutions.

Steps to Navigate this Wave of Infodemic

In order to navigate this wave of infodemic and decide who and what to trust, Fijian consumers can follow the following steps;

1. Assess the source

Always assess and verify the source of the information, even if it is from families or friends. The Council reiterates the need to get information only from the Ministry of Health and Medical services via their press releases, official Facebook page and website. There is a lot of misinformation and disinformation on social media which Fijians should refrain from trusting, as it contributes to the problems listed above.

2. Go beyond headlines

Headlines may be intentionally sensational or provocative to get high numbers of clicks. Read more than just the headline of an article – go further and look at the entire story. Search more widely than social media for information – look at print sources such as newspapers and magazines, and digital media. See if the information is aligned with the news or advisories being posted by the ministry of Health and Medical Services or the Fijian Government’s official pages. Diversifying your sources allows you to get a better picture of what is or is not trustworthy.

3. Check the date

When you come across information, ask yourself these questions: Is this a recent story? Is it up to date and relevant to current events? Has a headline, image or statistic been used out of context?

4. Examine the supporting evidence

Credible stories back up their claims with facts – for example, quotes from experts or links to statistics or studies. Verify that experts are reliable and that links actually support the story.

5. Check for biases

We all have biases, and these factor into how we view what’s happening around us. Evaluate your own biases and why you may have been drawn to a particular headline or story. What is your interpretation of it? Why did you react to it that way? Does it challenge your assumptions or tell you what you want to hear? What did you learn about yourself from your interpretation or reaction?

6. Turn to fact checkers

When in doubt, consult trusted fact-checking organizations, such as the International FactChecking Network and global news outlets focused on debunking misinformation, including the Associated Press and Reuters. Just like by staying home, we can break the chain of virus infections, by being prudent, responsible and asking the right questions, we can flatten the infodemic curve as illustrated in the diagram below.