The Infodemic Behind the Pandemic
Apparently, the cure for COVID-19 is in our orange juice. According to WorldHealth.net, “Shanghai has announced a recommendation to use high dose intravenous treatment of vitamin C to treat COVID-19.” Healthimpactnews.com also reports that “The coronavirus pandemic can be dramatically slowed, or stopped, with the immediate widespread use of high doses of vitamin C.” This is great news — except that it is 100 percent fake.
This pandemic has provided new soil on which misinformation can blossom. Despite vigorous efforts by social media companies to thwart the dissemination of fake news, NewsGuard, a misinformation watchdog, has counted 187 sources of coronavirus-related false information worldwide.
From government conspiracy theories to pseudo-scientific medicine recommendations, people’s newsfeeds have become increasingly cluttered with fake headlines. If you believed any of the information in the first paragraph, you may start to get a sense of exactly why that is so dangerous. Indeed, alongside the spread of the virus is another major public health concern: an infodemic, as the World Health Organization has named it.
Modern society, especially in the United States, is no stranger to fake news. However, where misinformation in a presidential election is a threat to democracy, fake news in the midst of a pandemic is a direct threat to people’s lives.
While the world waits for the development of a vaccine, the only means we have of mitigating the spread of the coronavirus is by adjusting our social behavior through measures like social distancing and self-quarantining. But, as with any global crisis, these procedures only have an impact if they are practiced on a collective level. It is not enough for one town, one state or even one country to take lockdown measures. This must be a united battle.
But for people to unite, we have to be on the same page. If people buy into false headlines, we lose the informed unity required to combat COVID-19 — that is where quality media that delivers fact-based truth becomes more important than ever. But despite the dire necessity of accurate journalism in this moment, coronavirus-related shutdowns have made journalism and fact-finding more difficult than ever.
Over the past month, many companies and institutions, including our own college, have shut down or moved work to remote settings. Following suit, many journalists have had to replace their newsroom work setting with their home environments. This leaves reporters in a particularly precarious situation — we now must distance ourselves from the very stories that we have to cover.
Here at The Student, providing quality journalistic coverage of the news important to the Amherst College community remains a top priority. However, with the majority of the Editorial Board and writing staff off-campus, this mission certainly has faced its challenges over the past weeks. On-the-ground reporting has been reduced to long chains of email correspondence with follow-up Zoom or phone interviews.
The same goes for many local news organizations that had already been struggling, which have been hit even harder by this pandemic. With these new journalistic obstacles, news organizations at all levels need as much support from the public as possible. That means buying subscriptions and making donations to as many legitimate news organizations as you can — even a dollar helps. If not financial support, just spending some time with the content that journalists are putting in so many hours to deliver helps our work make a difference. Go to the original site that the article was published to increase that outlet’s traffic. Share the link with people you know — you may not buy a subscription, but maybe a friend will. Ultimately, news circulation is what helps news businesses survive.
However, providing widespread support for news outlets while avoiding fake news may feel like a dicey balancing act. How are we expected to provide copious amounts of support for news organizations while also making sure to avoid enabling fake ones? This seems like a hefty task for the unsuspecting morning coffee-sipper scrolling through their Facebook newsfeed. This dilemma is precisely why it has become so easy to consume the wrong thing. With news becoming such an essential part of the quarantine routine, it is easy for malicious headlines to burrow their way into the public psyche.
With this new vulnerability in mind, we must change yet another aspect of our default behavior: mindless scrolling must become conscious consumerism. Approach every headline with a critical eye. Keep up with watchdog sites like NewsGuard (you can install it as a computer plug-in here). Do your own personal fact-checking. These measures might complicate your typical news consumption routine. They may seem like overreactions to a minimal problem — but so did face masks, social distancing and a national lockdown, until they weren’t.
Unsigned editorials represent the Editorial Board (assenting: 10; dissenting: 0; abstaining: 3)