The “Infodemic” means all the pandemic-based rumours and lies spreading on the internet. Find out how to prevent these conspiracy theories from spreading.
My late uncle was fond of saying, “What we don’t know, we make up.” We all need to make sense of our lives, so we fill in the gaps in our understanding with speculation.
Back in the 90s, I was caught up in the knowledge management movement. We believed that, with the arrival of the internet, everyone would have the right information in the right place at the right time.
We Believed Everyone Would Have the Right Information
Once all of the world’s knowledge was available online, everyone would have timely access to the accurate information they needed to make sound decisions. Fact-checking would be a breeze, and misinformation would be a thing of the past.
The so-called “knowledge economy” imploded with the start of the new millennium. More importantly, the promise of everyone gaining the knowledge they need to make sense of their lives was a mirage.
Although the internet has remained an indispensable research tool, it has also become a breeding ground for the ignorance and hate that World Health Organization (WHO) chief Dr. Tedros Adhanom has termed the “infodemic.” In many ways, it functions as an amplifier for the worst aspects of human nature.
Pandemic Has shed Light on Humanity’s Shortcomings
The coronavirus pandemic has shed a harsh light on many of humanity’s shortcomings. The human capacity for idle speculation, malicious gossip and unfounded rumours may be the worst of these failings.
May 3 was World Press Freedom Day. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres marked the occasion with this statement.
“Along with the pandemic, we are seeing a dangerous outbreak of misinformation, from harmful health advice and hate speech to wild conspiracy theories. Blatant lies spread online at a terrifying rate.”
The Internet Has Become a Cesspool of Deceit
We’ve all seen it. Far from being a fountain of truth, for many, the internet has become a cesspool of deceit.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights says in Article 19 that, “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers”.
So, we all have the right to “impart information and ideas.” But what happens when I interfere with your right to seek and receive accurate information by spreading lies?
We Don’t Have the Right to Shout Fire in a Crowded Theatre
All human rights have reasonable limits. As the old adage goes, we don’t have the right to shout fire in a crowded theatre. The infodemic represents exactly that kind of reckless behaviour.
In what follows, we’ll review just a few of the more blatant untruths that are spreading like a contagion around the world on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. I hesitate to bring more attention to them, but I feel compelled to set the record straight.
Probably the most prominent and earliest piece of nonsense that arose during the infodemic is about 5G. We’ve discussed it at length in a previous story.
Earliest piece of Nonsense is About 5G
Suffice it to say that 5G is the next generation of cellphone technology. It has more bandwidth, but a shorter range, so we need more transmission towers.
Someone came up with the leap of imagination that the fact that these towers are going up during the pandemic can’t be a coincidence. Many people sincerely believe that 5G signals caused the coronavirus epidemic.
The WHO has taken the time to clarify that viruses can’t travel on radio signals. They’ve also pointed out that the pandemic is spreading fast in countries that don’t have 5G yet.
Virus is Spreading Fast in Countries that Don’t Have 5G
That hasn’t flattened the curve on this ridiculous rumour. The story has morphed into the belief that 5G signals somehow altered the genome of an existing virus to produce the COVID-19 pandemic.
5G transmissions consist of non-ionizing radiation. That means they carry less energy than visible light, and they can’t possibly alter living tissue. Yet the spread goes on, and fanatics are setting fire to cellphone towers.
The infodemic has also tried to discredit Dr. Anthony Fauci. Dr. Fauci heads up the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
The Infodemic Has Also Tried to Discredit Dr. Fauci
Having earned respect and admiration as the adult in the room at the COVID-19 Task Force’s daily news briefings, he has also been the target of the ire of conspiracists.
They claim that he is part of the infamous “deep state” that is working to undermine the efforts of the White House to “drain the swamp.” Conspiracy theorists also tar the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention with this brush.
Dr. Fauci has provided medical advice to six presidents, Republican and Democrat, on HIV/AIDS and other public health concerns. As a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, he deserves better. This conspiracy theory seems to be a case of “shooting the messenger.”
Another Unfair Target of the Infodemic is Bill Gates
Another unfair target of the infodemic is Bill Gates. Surprisingly, it triggers a bit of sympathy in me. I say this even though he is the world’s second-richest person, and that the US Court of Appeals convicted him of monopolizing the software market in 2001.
The rumour about Gates is that he either caused the pandemic or had insider information that it was about to happen. He took advantage of this, supposedly, to vaccinate people with deadly toxins to reduce the surplus population.
As if this claim wasn’t absurd enough, it has given birth to an even more preposterous accusation. Many people now believe that Gates intends to inject everyone with a microchip containing a digital identity code that will enable the powers that be to track and control us. A growing number of religious fanatics equate it with the “mark of the beast” in the biblical book of Revelation.
No Good Deed Goes Unpunished
No good deed goes unpunished. As readers will know, Gates has retired and devoted his life to charity work.
This includes vaccination programs. Gates also gave a TED talk in 2005 warning of the potential danger of a global pandemic. These vicious rumours are the thanks he gets for his efforts.
Another ludicrous supposition is that COVID-19 doesn’t exist at all. Conspiracy theorists like Alex Jones and David Icke seem to think that the pandemic is a ruse perpetrated by nefarious globalists to take away our liberty.
Pandemic is a Ruse Perpetrated by Nefarious Globalists
A variation of this infodemic strain is that the virus exists but that it’s just seasonal flu, and governments are deliberately exaggerating the death rates. Experts agree that official death counts almost certainly underestimate the correct figures.
This is an incredibly dangerous aspect of the infodemic because it has spawned misguided anti-lockdown protests, especially in the United States. These protestors refuse to observe physical distancing.
This is counterproductive and is sure to spread the disease even faster. In fact, John McDaniel of Ohio, one of the ringleaders of the protests, contracted the coronavirus and died at age 60.
Another Infodemic Strain Involves GMO’s
Another infodemic strain involves genetically modified organisms. This outbreak started in Italy, where lawyer Francesco Billota insisted that genetic modifications in crops created a kind of “pollution.”
That modified the environmental balance, resulting in the novel coronavirus, according to Billota. The claim seems to be that modern agriculture is the culprit behind the outbreak.
Of course, from what we can gather so far, the virus may well be the result of primitive practices. These may include poaching and folk remedies, although that isn’t clear as I write this.
Could Prevent People From Choosing to Protect Themselves
The implications of this rumour are also severe. If people come to oppose any and all scientific research on genetic modification, this could prevent people from choosing to protect themselves when the COVID-19 vaccine eventually hits the market.
There are several other widespread versions of the infodemic. There’s a rumour that COVID-19 is a bioweapon developed by the Communist Chinese. The government of China has pushed back with an equally outlandish claim that the US created the bioweapon and unleashed it in China.
Anti-vaxxers blame the pandemic on Big Pharma, and militant vegans blame it on animal agriculture. Even worse, racists are scapegoating people of East Asian descent as part of the infodemic.
If All You Have Is a Hammer, You think Everything is a Nail
They sat that if all you have is a hammer, you think everything is a nail. People with their own agendas are taking advantage of the pandemic to raise their own pet issues.
It’s hard to know what their intent may be. In some cases, infodemic spreaders may be sincere in their beliefs. Too often, it’s blatantly apparent that they’re lining their pockets at the expense of the gullible.
The UN Chief also had this to say in his speech on World Press Freedom Day, “The antidote to this pandemic of misinformation is fact-based news and analysis.”
“Journalism Without Fear or Favour”
He continued, “It is rooted in a fundamental tenet: ‘journalism without fear or favour.’ This is much more than a slogan. It’s a matter of life and death.”
In his book, The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters, Tom Nichols writes, “The Internet lets a billion flowers bloom, and most of them stink, including everything from the idle thoughts of random bloggers and the conspiracy theories of cranks all the way to the sophisticated campaigns of disinformation conducted by groups and governments.”
He wrote that before the infodemic, and it has turned out to be prescient. Later in the book, he writes, “Experts need to remember, always, that they are the servants and not the masters of a democratic society and a republican government. If citizens, however, are to be the masters, they must equip themselves not just with education, but with the kind of civic virtue that keeps them involved in the running of their own country.”
We always have more to learn if we dare to know.
UN Secretary-General’s Remarks on Press Freedom and Tackling Disinformation in the COVID-19 Context
COVID: Top 10 current conspiracy theories
The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters
Human Rights Call to Action From UN Chief
COVID-19 Human Rights Issues Come to Light
Conspiracy Theories Spread Faster Than Germs