Water, water, every where,
Nor a drop to drink.
These are the lines from the poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. The poor sailor of the becalmed ship had plenty of water around him, but could not drink any because no one can drink salt water. These lines have their own subtle meaning: despite having a lot, sometimes you may not benefit from it. A large quantity of something might turn out to be worthless in the time of need.
The same is also true about information. We are living in a world of information. There is a saying in mass communication study that goes like this: you cannot not communicate. This means you are always communicating; it can be with some other person, with a non-living thing, or even with yourself. In the same way, we can not not process information. We need information to keep living; it’s an important intangible part of our life.
Yet, nothing excessive is good. We need information for our cognitive demand, but when there is too much information, that can be dangerous, let alone helpful to us. This problem with a huge amount of unnecessary information is coined as infodemic.
What is infodemic?
The word infodemic comes from two different words: information, and epidemic. An epidemic spreads in a faster way, with great power of taking out some considerable numbers of lives. A cure to any pandemic is hard to find. Analogously, when an excessive amount of information travels in a rapid way [becomes viral] and reaches out to almost every corner of the world, that is called an infodemic.
The most dangerous part of infodemic is when it contains misinformation, as well as disinformation [fake news], same as a pandemic or an epidemic containing deadly viruses. This mixture of accurate and false information makes it harder to find the real information about something. As attributed to Mark Twain, “It is easier to fool someone than to convince them they have been fooled.” Due to easier access to information technology, infodemic has become a growing concern nowadays.
The origin of infodemic
This problem of information-availability has something to do with a real-life epidemic. Infodemic was first heard in 2003, when a political scientist and journalist David Rothkopf wrote a column about SARS in the Washington Post.
Back then, the 2002-2004 SARS outbreak made us suffer seriously. It was a time of emerging technology; people had much more access to information than any time before. Hence, besides accurate and real information, there has been a crisis of false information, and people had to go through the trouble to get to the authentic information.
In his article, David Rothkopf considered infodemic as a second epidemic that had its implications far better than the SARS epidemic itself.
Covid-19 and infodemic
As of today, we have seen the worst-case scenario of infodemic in this coronavirus pandemic. We are now living in the era of social media, with a giant network that is combined and managed by the Internet. Everyday, information is being generated, and it will increase exponentially.
People are worried and anxious about the deadly COVID-19 virus. They want to know everything about it, its cures, its protection. The easiest tool at hand is using the Internet. People will just open those search engines to look at anything. That’s when inaccurate information blinds them, and citizens struggle to find a solution to what they are looking for. Many influential people have blamed the social medial companies for hyping disinformation to make more money, and there have been calls for greater regulation. In response, many social medial companies have made serious attempts to regulate disinformation and to provide sources of valid information.
The World Health Organization (WHO) showed its concern about infodemic at the early stage of the covid-19 outbreak. In a joint statement with other sister organizations, WHO defined infodemic as an overabundance of both online, and offline information, that spreads alongside an epidemic.
According to WHO, infodemic can also be deliberate. To gain interest out of something, some rogue actors might manipulate information and facts or spread biased propaganda that may end up being a part of this problem. WHO, therefore, asked its member states to disseminate accurate information in a timely manner as a prevention method of infodemic while respecting the freedom of expression.
A case study of infodemic
Apart from diseases, infodemic can be related to nearly any subject. When the need for authentic information faces obstacles and that eventually leads to a different problem, that is infodemic. Here is an example of how excessive and easy-to-access information can change a very plain truth into something unreal yet believed by many.
This instance is about the chupacabra, a blood-sucking legendary beast that first emerged in Puerto Rico in the late 1990s. Chupacabras were bipedal creatures with large eyes, spikes, and claws. Legends and rumors claimed that chupacabras used to suck the blood out of domestic animals.
Benjamin Redford carried out a mission to figure out what chupacabras actually were, and he did it. In his five-year-long investigation, he proved that the tale of chupacabra was just a myth and the creatures that were thought to be chupacabras were actually sickened dogs and dog-like animals. They were suffering from sarcoptic mange, and their physical shape became distorted, which gave them a beast-like appearance.
Nonetheless, after all that evidence out there, the legend of chupacabras went viral. It even reached to the farthest part of the world. People believed in chupacabras. What was the reason for chupacabras legend going viral, despite having solid proof, can be associated with the problem of infodemic.
People started to know more than enough, too much information about chupacabras. They missed out the most important part, that the chupacabras were just regular but distorted beings. And the reason behind this disinformation was the Internet. Because that was the time of the Internet grew at a remarkable rate, same as the period of SARS outbreak, people misused and took advantage of it.
Redford himself regarded chupacabras as the first internet monsters. Too much-unbalanced information just created and spread out a whole new legendary beast, that was proved to be never existing.
The cure for infodemic
We don’t have it yet. But, you can play a part to help get rid of it. The first step to fight against this problem is to acknowledge it. This relatively less discussed issue can make the suffering of the current pandemic worse. When someone needs guidance in a critical time like this, they need to be fed with authentic information; otherwise, it can be hard for people to get their things right.
Social media platforms have been the most effective carriers of rumors and fake news. It’s because, on these platforms, anyone can say, write, share anything they want. And many leading platforms, such as Facebook and Twitter, have made serious efforts to regulate disinformation. This shared diversity of information creates confusion instead of knowledge. One needs to act sincerely while sharing any sort of information with others, just like the steps that need to be taken to prevent fake news.
The problem with infodemic is it’s hard to find out when and where it’s happening. The rumors about COVID-19 were so powerful last year that even famous publications like The Lancet published studies that had to be taken down later for doubtful sources of data. It seems infodemic is not going anywhere very soon.
In the end, it’s you who need to take care of yourself. Make an effort to get the best information out of your sources. Search engines have some techniques and keywords that help extract reliable and exact data from the vast world of the Internet. Try to learn the most effective use of these search tools, do the best research on your query. Share less, judge much, that’s how you survive an infodemic.