Pandemic, infodemic and creation of fake news

Author: Armin Tufo

“We lack constructive stories, good solutions and science journalism, as we have no science journalists who would convey accurate and scientific information about the coronavirus to the public in a way that is understandable to many.” - Anida Sokol, researcher and project coordinator at Mediacentar Sarajevo. 

How did it all begin?

 

At the turn of 2019, unknowingly, the world was about to find itself in an unprecedented environment; an environment characterized by daily broadcasts of infection rates, death tolls, reports of closed schools, offices, and malls, as well as notices of police curfews. This plunge into a whole year of masks, hand sanitizers, and physical distancing became widely known as the COVID-19 global pandemic, as declared by the World Health Organization already in March 2020. Suddenly, everyone became acquainted with spending additional time inside, primed to their electronic devices, impatiently waiting for news updates of the number of infected people by the SARS-CoV-2 virus in their proximity. This meant that the audience of media outlets became ever-so bigger, increasing the importance of said media in conveying timely, relevant, and accurate information. On top of this, a lot of attention was shifted onto social networks, with people expressing their opinions and viewpoints on the pandemic publicly, not only to their sizable circle of friends, but also to wider masses. 

 

The Infodemic

 

It quickly became apparent that the basic functions of the media, such as informing the public and the policymakers, assumed the fore as thousands of people were dependent on accurate data in order to make informed decisions. However, what also became strikingly apparent was that the various kinds of media became a hub for false information, fake news, conspiracy theories, and all other forms of potentially harmful content. Even prior to the declaration of a global pandemic, WHO warned of an upcoming and equally dangerous ‘infodemic’ - high numbers of rapidly-spreading information, oftentimes false in its nature. Great power politics also ensued, with cases of former or current rivals pointing fingers at each other, spreading rumours and deceit amongst their citizens, example being Russian ‘Sputnik News’, falsely claiming that the virus was made by humans, used as a weapon by NATO. Not even top state officials were immune to the virus of infodemic, including the former US President, Donald Trump, who was identified as the ‘single largest driver’ of misinformation in that country, according to a study conducted by Cornell University. 

 

What’s happening in my country?

 

These peculiar but well-known cases of COVID-19 misinformation inspired me to investigate this issue in my country, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and talk to a researcher at an NGO in the field of professional journalism, and a PhD holder, Anida Sokol. Regarding the aforementioned study, Sokol is confident that politicians’ statements have a profound impact on public opinion, especially in times of crisis, however, she also pointed out that “unfortunately, many do not realize their public service role and that their words can have a large impact.” The role of the media also seems to be sensitive and, according to Sokol, there has been excessive focus on politicians’ statements, juxtaposed with the presence of doctors and experts in the media. Furthermore, Sokol emphasizes that the majority of articles from major media outlets in BiH were written in a negative voice, lacking “in dept-search [sic] on certain issues (...) [and] stories about people who have developed severe coronavirus disease and overcame it.” Such stories, she believes, “can help others to be more positive but also show them how severe the illness can be”, teaching the public two important lessons that seem to be omitted from the daily discourse: positive stories of human recovery; and the severity of the disease which has been downplayed. 

 

What about social media platforms?

 

Regarding Facebook and other social media platforms, which have been identified as a ‘playground for the spread of misinformation’, Sokol brings focus to media and information literacy of citizens. When asked about potential social media regulation, Sokol opposes such due to worries of censorship and limits of freedom of expression, noting that regulation could sometimes even strengthen the beliefs of conspiracy theorists. 

 

“What we really need is better communication of crisis centers in BiH and a nation-wide campaign about health measures, COVID-19 and vaccines”, says Sokol. 

 

“So many [sic] different information is coming from different levels of government that the public often is confused. If citizens do not get clear information from verified sources then they will seek it elsewhere. We really need a unified and nation-wide campaign about the pandemic led by experts and doctors”, she adds. 

 

Focusing on the freedom of expression versus regulation debate, professor Enes Osmancevic in an interview for BIRN BiH, says that we need to be responsible for what we say publicly. It’s become common that the spread of misinformation is hidden behind calls for freedom of expression, therefore, professional standards of journalism and journalist ethics have become desperately sought after. 

 

Fact-checkers and webinars

 

Coming back to my interviewee, she shed light on the value of fact-checking organizations which, in her opinion, are “doing a great job in the region and [she] think[s] that they showed how important their role is in times of crisis.” One of the most prominent fact-checking websites in the region is undoubtedly Raskrinkavanje.ba, offering their readers a comprehensive account into a plethora of articles shared by some of the biggest media outlets which, in turn, happened to contain misinformation or were deemed as conspiracies. Another characteristic my interlocutor mentioned was that a big portion of media reporting on the pandemic is episodic, “focused on one event, one statements [sic], one new information”, whereas what we need is “thematic reporting, that would problematize an issue, give background information to the public.” Lastly, she and her team at Mediacentar Sarajevo have undertaken their own measures, holding courses and webinars on media literacy, as well as professional publication of articles on the pandemic at www.media.ba. One not-that-positive fact is that these webinars are usually attended by “people who are already knowledgeable to some extent on the subject. We really need to involve more people, to have more educational activities including not only young people and students but also elderly and both rural and urban populations”, concludes Sokol.