Kusumika Das

While the whole world was busy coping with COVID-19the over the last two years;, another pandemic hit us silently and triggered mass suffering; that is the pandemic of misinformation by the news media such as television, newspaper, news websites, social media etc. Half-baked advice, sketchy remedies and misleading theories increased anxiety and fear in commoners leading them to a new health risk.

 Recent research conducted by the WHO suggests that, in the first three months of 2020, nearly 6,000 people around the globe were hospitalized because of coronavirus misinformation. During this period, researchers say at least 800 people may have died due to misinformation related to COVID-19. 

The new term “infodemic”, which means an overload of information – some verified, some unchecked – induces paranoia resulting in them rushing to a doctor.” Dr. Saikat Dasgupta of Siliguri District Hospital, West Bengal touches upon how there was an element of rumour mongering. “People should have faith in medical science, but we observed that newspapers, television channels, and social media-induced fear and anxiety rather than alleviating that.”

Cognitive factors including believing in fake news, overclaiming, having faith in the instant problem-solving ability, and socio-cognitive polarization have fuelled the dissemination of misinformation.   Data released in January 2021 by the Johns Hopkins Centre for Communication Programmes suggest that across 23 countries, only 63 per cent of respondents will accept a vaccine. That is well below the 75 per cent minimum estimate recommended by public health experts for a population to reach “herd immunity”.

The govt. also uses the media for its own benefits and spreads misinformation, which is essentially known as disinformation. Disinformation generates confusion within the population and sometimes statements by the politicians influence them, which in turn leads to further repercussions on public opinion such as prior to the 2021 assembly election in various states including West Bengal, Assam the govt. Declared victory over controlling the spread of coronavirus and started organising rallies, which contributed to the tsunami of COVID-19 cases that overwhelmed and already floundering the healthcare system since the middle of April 2021. 

After conducting an investigation, the Hindi-language-based Dainik Bhaskar splashed its Apr. 15 front page with a night-time shot of a crematorium in the city of Bhopal and said it is the pyres that tell the truth.  Bhopal had officially reported four COVID-19 deaths.  that day as opposed to the 112 COVID-19-related funerals conducted by three crematoriums in the city, according to the newspaper’s findings. Most other media houses chose to underreport and highlighted the data that the govt provided them.

 Misinformation is not a new phenomenon. It peaked during the early months of the pandemic, around March-May 2020. The question is why? Here, digital media consultant and former Reuters journalist Anjan Chakraborty, says, “At times, it was the lack of authoritative information, at times it was the lack of clarity and at times it was the slow and contained flow of information from the governments and the scientific community on the disease, its spread, its detection and its cure that led to the opening of floodgates for misinformation,  and disinformation. The lack of authoritative scientific data and research made it impossible to dispel all rumours, whisper mongering and fear about the disease. Misinformation and disinformation thrive when authoritative data is sparsely available. That’s what happened here.”

Professor Mayukh Lahiri of Shri Shikshayatan College, Kolkata adds, “It’s the consumerist economy’s pattern to create some need and that’s also why sometimes the government confuses the people with agenda-based, tailored information, which helps in boosting the market economy, for e.g., the government started instructing people to wear N-95 masks at the beginning of the pandemic, then shifted to three-layered surgical masks and now it’s the usage of both.” 

However, in this digital era infodemic spread like wildfire. It can be stopped through campaigns such as the “Stop the Spread” campaign by WHO which provides easy steps to report misinformation online.