Hard to steer clear of misinformation about the new coronavirus. Stay safe. Photo: leo2014/pixabay.
I want to start with an appeal. We are suddenly beset by hard and uncertain times. Fear and dread of an unknown future is creating unease. To ensure that we do not add to this fear we should be thoughtful about what we share with others, especially through social media and messaging apps. When you see something, ask yourself: do I trust this information? if it is technical, do I know enough to judge it? Is there enough evidence on offer? Has this been said elsewhere? What does the WHO or the Health Ministry say about it? Have you compared the government order that you received on WhatsApp with the official website? We should simply refrain from sharing and forwarding in case of the slightest doubt. Else we will end up providing misinformation that may put people in grave danger.
The coronavirus pandemic has come as a godsend to many people, to showcase to the world their ignorance weaponised as wisdom and knowledge, often surrounded by an aura of cultural pride. Digital technologies have turned many people into experts, scholars, doctors and general know-it-alls. Armed with a mobile phone and very little else, they use the internet and social media for spreading misleading information galore, including nonsense that can be lethal for those who practise their prescriptions.
A lot has been written about the infodemic accompanying the physical epidemic of the coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) disease, COVID-19. The most absurd things have been said about the disease, the remedies and the measures to be taken. This begs the question: what is wrong and why is this happening? At the simplest level, the circulation of sensational material is driven by fear and hope, and the tendency of the mind to amplify dangers as a survival mechanism. This often happens in times of pandemics, calamities and wars. What is new at this contemporary juncture, and which makes the scenario incredibly complex and dangerous, is the presence of three factors: first, the easy access to the great treasure trove of unchecked “knowledge” on the internet; second, the speed of propagation, and reach enabled by digital media, and third, social and political polarisation which generates conspiracy theories and pseudo scientific narratives infused with ferocious partisan pride.
The most popular narratives are simply extensions of home recipes for coughs and colds or those for boosting general immunity. Some are as simple as gargling with hot water and drinking hot rasam. Another category is that of self diagnosis, such as the popular message that says that if you can hold your breath for 10 seconds, then you are not infected with the coronavirus. The internet carries much more misinformation that is easy to stumble upon than genuine information which has to be searched for and then processed critically to ascertain authenticity. Disinformation is often presented through official-looking documents replete with logos and seals. Some of it also comes with the “authority” of eminent professionals, such as a famous cardiologist who was heard saying persons with symptoms should get tested only after eight days because of a shortage of testing kits. Then there is plenty of ridiculous stuff floating around on Facebook, Twitter and most notoriously, on WhatsApp. There are suggestions that garlic will cure coronavirus, or that drinking warm water every 15 minutes will prevent the infection. More exciting recommendations are to indulge in alcohol and weed, both of which will kill the virus. A popular one in the US is that a “miracle mineral solution”, essentially bleach, will knock out the virus. It’s incidental that it will knock you out for good as well.
Messages have also promoted the idea that a mask is a foolproof way of keeping the virus out – a dangerous idea as it breeds a false confidence, and consequent foolhardy behaviour. This has also caused a shortage of masks for those who need it. And finally, of course, there was the false announcement that the government had anyway organised the killing of the virus in mid air by spraying entire localities.
It is alarming when such simplicity becomes official policy: health ministry advisories recommend which Ayurvedic, Unani and homeopathic remedies will help with the “symptomatic management” of the coronavirus! There is not an iota of scientific proof to make such assertions, yet these have come from a government ministry. Under fire from experts, the ministry “clarified” that these advisories were issued in the “general context” of virus related infections. Imagine the catastrophic consequences of someone deciding to opt for the suggested “line of treatment”. US President Donald Trump advocated the use of chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine to treat the coronavirus infection. When questioned, he replied, “I am a man that comes from a very positive school when it comes to, in particular, one of these drugs. It’s just a feeling, just a feeling. [I’m a] smart guy.”
There is only anecdotal evidence about the effectiveness of these medicines and trials are underway but the espousal of this “treatment” by the US president has already caused havoc: hoarding of these drugs has led to shortages for people who need them for other illnesses. People are now self-medicating with these highly toxic drugs to save themselves from the coronavirus and deaths have already been reported in Arizona and in Nigeria. A similar situation may develop in India, too.
Larger conspiracy theories also have their share of fame. A popular one is that the coronavirus is an outcome of 5G mobile technology; it makes people ill through the agency of this virus. The Malaysian government had to assure its population that the virus will not turn people into bloodthirsty zombies. In the United States the right wing is flooding social media with posts that the coronavirus is a conspiracy to generate anti-Trump hysteria and “destabilise the country”. Fears are being stoked that the WHO is taking “control of nations and there’s going to be forced vaccines to kill off many people”. One consequence of this is that right-leaning citizens are not taking the pandemic seriously, and are indulging in reckless behaviour such as eating out or shaking hands (to prove that they are tough).
At a deeper level the right-wing is “proposing conspiracy theories about the causes and the origins of the virus, and to use these narratives to scapegoat groups like immigrants, or minorities or liberals.” Already there are distressing reports of Chinese-American citizens being abused because Trump has popularised the term “Chinese virus”. In India, citizens from the Northeast have come under similar racist attacks. The demonisation of China as being inhumanly cruel, even to its own people, is sought to be “proved” by reports that they were killing infected people.
But the age old question remains: why do people get taken in by all this nonsense? A more detailed piece deals with how nonsense becomes “knowledge” by crowdsourcing. Broadly speaking, the lack of critical skills for a variety of reasons in vast segments of the population, allows anything, however ridiculous, to become “believable”. People without exposure to a proper education and lacking basic familiarity with scientific principles have no compass to determine the validity of the information they are being bombarded with. Further, the absence of a sense of skepticism, which is an inherent part of scientific temper, prevents any deep interrogation of what they are seeing, reading and hearing.
There are clearly two kinds of scenarios here.
First is the category of people who start out rationally but at some point get taken in by the authentic looking fake documents or scientific sounding arguments. The narratives of homoeopathy providing all the wonderful drugs to fight the coronavirus is a good example. Such narratives borrow the linguistic style that allopathic medicine uses, making homeopathy sound like a perfectly equivalent and alternative system of medicine. This masks the underlying pseudoscience on which homeopathy is based. In the context of the coronavirus pandemic these narratives promising cures or vaccines can create illusions of invincibility against the disease.
In the context of the ‘janata curfew’, a pseudoscientific explanation quite popular on social media is that “as coronavirus life at one place is 12 hours and janata Curfew is for 14 hours so that places or points of public areas where corona may have survived will not be touched for 14 hours could break the chain”. This is not only bizarre logic, it is also wrong on facts about the survival times of the virus. While a curfew of this sort may lower contact rates while it is being observed, and may be a good drill for introducing the idea of emergency measures, it won’t “break the chain of transmission”.
A nonsensical WhatsApp forward argues that clapping and blowing of conches at the same time by 130 crore people in India “will create so much vibrations that the virus will lose all potency”. This strategy has already been met with great success if some tweets are to be believed because “the cosmic level sound waves generated have been detected by NASA SD13 wave detector and a recently made bio-satellite has shown COVID-19 strain diminishing and weakening”, and that too within minutes of the collective chanting.
Profound mumbo jumbo could not have sounded better. Meanwhile, the whole idea of social distancing, which governments are trying to promote desperately, came to a nought when many people, excited by the exhortation of politicians, collected together outside their homes to clap and clang cooking vessels to honour workers at the frontline of fighting the disease. Yet the ground reality is quite different as we don’t really want these workers around us because they might be infected. Landlords reportedly evicted airline staff and even medical professionals – showing the pathetic extent to which we devalue other people’s lives, even when they serve us during a crisis. Our lack of empathy towards people who have been quarantined and a complete invasion of their privacy is even more shameful.
We are indeed witnessing history being made, of the ugliest kind.
Second, we have many people who are inherently prone to superstition and irrational beliefs, for reasons ranging from a peculiar religiosity to an upbringing in a cultural ethos full of such beliefs. Here, knowledge and information are received from elders, community heads and religious leaders, unquestioningly; minds are conditioned not to be skeptical or look for evidence. Therefore, such people will simply go, at face value, by whatever they receive, and even more enthusiastically, if the information has been received from an “authority” of any sort – officials, political leaders, religious figures. A video of “go corona go” may be good for creating an optimistic mood to “fight” the disease but it also engenders the illusion that the coronavirus can be driven away by chanting, and even more so by collective chanting.
A very significant class of absurd narratives of this kind, related to the coronavirus, are those that come infused with religious and nationalistic pride. The contemporary moment, which is witnessing great political polarisation and severe social anger, has given rise to militant forms of self righteousness embedded inside narratives of cultural superiority. It is accompanied by an epistemological inversion of modern scientific ways of knowing, so that knowledge and prescriptions now flow from ancient scriptures.
Thus, gaumutra is used as disinfectant and sprayed on unsuspecting people. Right wing politicians claim that cow urine and dung can treat coronavirus, and also that a havan (incense-burning ceremony) will kill the virus. Some of them organised a special party where invitees were given cow urine to drink. There are astrological explanations that supposedly tell us why we are facing this existential crisis, and when it will go away. Another claim says that the ancient Indian yoga breathing technique can prevent the coronavirus infection, and also that the herb ashwagandha (used in Ayurvedic medicine) “doesn’t allow blending of corona protein with human protein”. In Indonesia, media posts claimed that Islamic ablution rituals can kill the virus.
Those who take any of this seriously and then assume that they have the wherewithal to fight off the coronavirus menace are likely putting themselves, and others, in grave jeopardy.
There are more sinister and long-term effects of this ignorance that is enveloping us. Self-righteous wisdom is being unleashed in a frenzy of militant vegetarian chauvinism. The origin of the coronavirus in the “wet markets” of China where different species of slaughtered wild animals are kept together – which allowed a virus to jump from one species to another and ultimately to humans – has spawned a general diatribe against non-vegetarianism. Hindutva claims of civilisational superiority are expressed by blaming meat eaters and ardent adherents demand that the Chinese president ask for forgiveness from “the idol of the coronavirus” for eating animals. Videos showing infected mutton markets aid and abet these sentiments. Thus, coronavirus becomes nature’s revenge against meat eaters. This has led to poultry prices falling to absurdly low levels in India, with the industry facing economic ruin because of the association of eating chicken and the purported transmission of the coronavirus. No amount of counter-advisories have been of help.
In a broader sense, no appeals and advice to get information only from recommended websites (e.g. WHO) have prevented people from believing and forwarding misinformation. We must also remember that a lot of false information is disinformation, i.e. deliberately designed to deceive, often by right wing culture warriors. The infodemic continues unabated and will do so till we break the “chain of transmission”.
The digital media is therefore, in many ways, a gift to simpletons who believe in whatever nonsense is thrown at them, and even more so to the creators and designers of this nonsense. The various platforms on the internet, from Facebook to YouTube, on which one can “say or write anything”, are literally like freely available weapons to be used by any know-it-all – innocent or partisan –to throw drivel at everyone on the street. It is not the case that there was no stupidity in the world in earlier times but the means to make stupidity ubiquitous were absent, thus limiting the amount of nonsense that could be created and injected into the system, and also the speed at which it would propagate.
The big tech companies are trying to stem the flow of misinformation related to the coronavirus but it is likely to be too little to control the gigantic web created by these companies themselves. This marriage of modern technology to uncritical, primitive worldviews should remind us that societies which nurture superstition wallow in pseudoscience and run down rationality, mostly as a part of their weaponry in waging cultural and political battles, will always be hoisted with their own petard.
Anurag Mehra teaches engineering and policy at IIT Bombay. His policy focus is the interface between technology, culture and politics.