Thursday, 18 April, 2024

Tearing through infodemic is a tough job

By Aashish Mishra
Kathmandu, Sept. 16: In addition to a pandemic, the coronavirus has also caused an infodemic – a phenomenon where an enormous volume of misinformation is released to the public, according to Laxman Datt Pant, media expert and chairperson of Media Action Nepal.
Described as an epidemic of [false] information, infodemic is as detrimental to public health as the coronavirus epidemic because it breeds conspiracies, downplays risks and misleads and misguides people to take actions harmful to their health and safety, Pant described. A case in point, the case of people in various parts of Nepal drinking sanitizers believing it will kill the virus inside their body.
The problem of infodemic has escalated to such an extent that misinformation is figuratively all around us, thanks in part to social media. A recent survey by the Centre for Media Research – Nepal revealed that 95.5 per cent of Nepali internet users receive misinformation.
But is there any way to counter this overabundance of falsehood?
Deepak Adhikari believes that one way to do it is to fact-check. Adhikari is the editor of South Asia Check, one of the pioneering fact-checking websites of Nepal, and he stresses the need for verifying the factuality of information disseminated to the public, especially from public figures, to control and contain the infodemic.
“When misinformation comes from authorities and media, it gets amplified and reaches a lot of people,” Adhikari said, adding, “The problem is compounded by a lack of media literacy. People share anything they find on social media without checking its veracity. While they do so with good intention, they often end up peddling harmful untruths.”
So, fact-checking is of paramount importance, especially during sensitive times like the current COVID-19 crisis. And this is what Adhikari and his four-member team at South Asia Check, an initiative of Panos South Asia, endeavours to do.
Fact-checking begins with media monitoring. Interviews by public figures, viral social media posts/photos and many other news and information are reviewed, checked and then discussed. Tools like Google’s Reverse Image Search and the browser extension InVid are deployed. Archival searches on newspapers and other publications are run and government documents and other sources are cross-checked. “Research and verification are at the heart of our work,” Adhikari said.
But with the sheer volume of info out there, checking every piece, although ideal, is not feasible. So, the priority is to check statements by politicians and officials. “Since the pandemic, we have also turned our attention to social media where most of the misinformation spreads,” Adhikari said.
“The spread of fake news is almost seasonal. During the monsoon, we see a lot of misleading photos of floods and landslides. If there is tension between Nepal and India, people come up with all sorts of false claims.”
The team has gone into overdrive since the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak in Nepal, fact-checking 15 false or misleading claims related to the pandemic, Adhikari informed.
Misinformation spreads like wildfire and to enable fact-checked pieces to catch up, South Asia Check publishes in both Nepali and English on its website. It is also active on social media and requests influencers to share their posts. Various media outlets also circulate their pieces and it uses simple language, photos and graphs to make the articles as accessible, readable and relatable as possible.
But in spreading fact-checked pieces, the team has to be careful about debunking the original misinformation without amplifying it. So, does fact-checking work? Indranath Sharma watched a YouTube interview with one Surajeet Dutta where he claims that the mortality rate of COVID-19 is negligible. Sharma accepted the claim until his daughter showed him a fact-checked piece published by South Asia Check which opened his eyes, he said.
Similarly, Suveksha Tamrakar got to know about a scientist in Hetauda developing a vaccine against the coronavirus through several major newspapers. Later, she saw a fact-checked piece on the popular blog Mysansar and learnt that the stories were inaccurate.
But fact-checkers can only do so much. The people must develop skills to distinguish bogus materials. A way to do that is to remain sceptical to the information received from various channels, Pant suggests. “I recommend people to view information and news with a critical eye and deploy manual and technological tools for fact-checking, source verification and misinformation detection.”
Adhikari also has a few tips. “Check any news before you share it. Is it from a reliable source? Have other media reported it? Is the language grammatically correct (Most misinformation is simple copy-paste job)? When was it published? We have to think twice before sharing a photo, video or a meme to ensure that we don’t become a transmitter of fake news.”