Flattening the curve of mis(dis)information and mis(dis)trust through media and information literacy in the era of Covid-19 pandemic and infodemic

By Olunifesi Suraj

It was William Jefferson who once said “enlighten the people generally; and tyranny and the oppression of mind and body will vanish like evil spirits at the dawn of day”. Today, while Covid-19 is ravaging human bodies in the latest global pandemic, disinformation and misinformation are oppressing human mind through its infodemic onslaught. Hence, we are confronted with Jefferson’s reality after many centuries. It is obvious that whatever affects the mind would also affect the body. Therefore, heal the mind and the body shall be well. Disinformation and misinformation in form of fake news thrives through ignorance. As a result, Jefferson admonished that enlightenment (education) in the form of a well informed citizens is the antidote against tyranny of mind and the oppression of the body.

Ever since the advent of Covid-19, the world has come to accept certain semantics that aptly describe our present situation and not predicament as some will want us to believe. We have come to grasp and live with words such as social distancing, lockdown, quarantine, isolation and flattening the curve to mention but the important few ones. Covid-19 nonetheless, is not alone in its attempt to eradicate human race. It runs simultaneously with a well known albeit formidable partners in crime which under its present disguise has the tendency to stamped out human race on its own.

In comparison, both Covid-19 and fake news are non-human agents use by human agents to work against human race. It is also important to note that both have defiled known solutions to certain extent. They spread by contacts. They multiply in thousands. They are non-living things but became live in humans (either in the body or in the human mind). They spread by ignorance and thrive on fear.

Both Covid-19 and Fake news are threatening to change World Order.

Covid-19 no doubt has brought about disorderliness to a world that once live in orderliness. The pandemic has defiled all orders and brought about no particular order. Our once cherished freedom of expression appears to have given way to restrictions as enforced by martial laws. Democracy has partially given rise to totalitarianism or what I have called “authoritarian democracy”.

Just as easy it is for the virus to mutate, so it is for fake news to change narratives like amoeba with no particular form or shape. It appears to me that there is no way we can successfully fight against Covid-19 without waging the same war on fake news. As the world mobilizes resources against the formidable common foe, I argue the same must be done in respect to fake news and its attendant information disorder. In other words, not only should we flatten the Covid-19 rising curve, we must also by means of exigency flatten the curve of mis(dis)information and mis(dis)trust.

Moreover, since they both breed mistrust, fuel conflicts and engender hatred, it therefore makes sense to apply social distancing. We must equate social distancing of Covid-19 to Media distancing of fake news. It does means we must be skeptical about information people share with us both in social and mainstream media. We must know the identity of the people behind the information we are consuming. We must do source verification and source authentication. We must be able to read between the lines and critically examine or evaluate information we are receiving even from trusted contacts and media.

Media distancing is all about applying critical thinking, unassuming and treating all information as doubts until we have enough evidence to believe the story. It also means distancing ourselves from frivolous and sensational headlines and stories. It means learning to understand our biases to information we have adjudge to be truth but due to our sentiment we are not ready to accept the reality. We must learn not to absolutely believe our known trusted information sources without doing fact checking because they could be a good means to spread lies and fake news unnoticed. In this, we seek media independence in achieving independent mind as we race towards the needed media plurality which is a fundamental principle of open society. While we maintain the much needed media distancing, we must nonetheless be open to all sources of information and critically evaluate and fact check them for us to effectively determine their relevance.

Though, there is a need to lock down in order to step down the spread of the pandemic. However, for the infodemic, we cannot afford to lock down. Here we are face with the choice between protectionism and empowerment. We believe to lock down is to protect, to social distance is to reflect, to isolate is to detect and to quarantine is to attest. However, we equally believe to enlighten is to empower. The question is while we are locking down in order to protect, can we as well educate (enlighten) our citizens and ourselves to be empowered?

In other words, we are down between information and knowledge. We are informed to protect ourselves from the pandemic but we need to know in order to empower ourselves from the infodemic. The question is, from all the information surrounding the pandemic, which of them do we know to be truth? Hence, rather than sharing the unverified information about the pandemic that can leads to hatred, racism and misconception, why can’t we share truthful information that can enhance our peaceful co-existence, promote human dignity and advance our fundamental human rights?

The point is, we might manage to achieve the physical lockdown with the pandemic but definitely not the media lockdown against the infodemic. Naturally, information is supposed to resolve our uncertainties but in the world of diversified digital platforms, more information in the form of “information overload” appears to be compounding our problem and adding to our uncertainty misfortunes. Though, diversified digital platforms as a conveyor of information is a blessing in disguise, as it creates democratic access to information that were once in the custody of privilege few but, ironically, with unverified information overload that constantly bombard us, our sustainable developmental agenda faces colossal misadventure. Hence, there is a need to sieve the chaff from the wheat. This calls for individual and corporate social responsibility. There is need for Media and Information literacy & Intercultural Dialogue (MILID) education as Jefferson appear to have earlier proposed.

There is need for critical thinking to know (know) and leverage (le) what we know to be truth in order to have an edge (Knowledge) over disinformation and misinformation in the market place of ideas as we race towards information superiority. This reflection should help us to identify, isolate and counter falsehood that threatened our collective livelihood through the propagation of infodemic while we engage in the physical lockdown of the pandemic. This ought to be our collective responsibility and should be spearheaded by the educated media and information literacy citizens. As J.F Kennedy, rightly observed:

“If the pursuit of leaning is not defended by the educated citizens, it will not be defended at all…but the educated citizens know how much more there is to know. He knows that knowledge is power – more so today than ever before. He knows that only an educated and informed people will be a free people; that the ignorance of one voter (citizen) in a democracy impairs the security of all; And, therefore the educated citizens has a special obligation to encourage the pursuit of learning, to promote exploration of the unknown, to preserve the freedom of inquiry…”

Media and Information Literacy will definitely produce “educated Citizens” as J.F. Kennedy rightly observed. The journalistic instinct in us to look for truth, buy it and not to sell it is never in demand as in the present age of the monstrous duo of pandemic and infodemic. As educated citizens who are media and information literate, there is a clarion call for us to serve as credible messengers and as active participants in pursuit of truth for public interest. As Kennedy further observed:

“… the educated citizen has a special obligation to encourage the pursuit of learning, to promote exploration of the unknown, to preserve the freedom of inquiry, to support the advancement of research, and to assist at every level of government the improvement of education for all…”

Therefore, in flattening the curve of infodemic, the Covid-19 pandemic and the global mistrust that is presently affecting our mind and body (as Jefferson observed) and threatening our collective peace and sustainable development agenda, we must as a necessity heed the word of Kennedy that today’s media and information literate citizen does not necessarily has to be an information professional however, “…the educated citizen has an obligation to serve the public…and must be an (active) participant and not a (passive) spectator”.

I thank you all for listening!

Dr Olunifesi Suraj is a Senior Lecturer at the Department of Mass Communication, University of Lagos, Nigeria

This article is the full text of his contribution to an online webinar for the Eastern African Region of UNESCO held on April 14, 2020. The title of the webinar is: “Deconstructing Misinformation, Hate speech, and Racism for the Promotion of Cultural Diversity, Peace Building and Sustainable Development during COVID-19 Pandemic”

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