The internet is great. Without a doubt, its presence has been essential during this pandemic. Recurrent lockdowns and social distancing guidelines have moved meetings from boardrooms to Zoom calls. Social media and messaging apps have never been so important when it comes to catching up with friends and family from afar. However, like anything, the internet has cons as well as pros, and the pandemic has proven that.
In the age of social media, it only takes seconds to get a message out to the public. Naturally, public health officials and the media have used this to their advantage, providing us with regular updates on COVID-19 figures, streaming government press briefings and sharing graphics detailing public health guidelines. However, the recommendations and updates shared in good faith by experts have, somewhat inevitably, been enveloped by a bombardment of conspiracy theories, dodgy remedies and apparent cures for the virus.
These are uncertain times. The public are anxious. Throughout the pandemic, people have been hungry for information about what to expect, and what will happen next. That, combined with an element of frustration at the ‘new normal’, has allowed misinformation to spread every time there is a new development or finding. The facts say that COVID-19 is a virus. The facts say that it is respiratory. The facts say that it is spread through droplets. The facts say that it has the potential to kill. The facts say that there is no remedy or cure, and that a vaccine is in development. We must choose facts over fiction, and we must listen to ‘the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth’.
The misinformation surrounding COVID-19, described by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres as ‘a pandemic of misinformation’, can take many different forms, each as bizarre and dangerous as the next. The week before our first national lockdown saw rumours circulate in WhatsApp groups which speculated that the army was to be deployed in order to keep the public indoors. In a community Facebook group, I recently saw a post which attached a “list of reasons not to wear a mask”, or something to that effect. Following the launch of the government’s contact-tracing app, I recall claims that the app was dead-set on stealing users’ personal information, having been developed by a group with links to Cambridge Analytica. The infamous conspiracy theories regarding 5G have also been put forward. I have seen too many “home remedies” for the coronavirus online, including (but not limited to) the ingestion of methanol, reliance on essential oils, and treatments involving baking soda, vinegar, orange peel and black pepper. Not to forget, of course, the claim that drinking alcohol can help prevent a person from catching the virus.
Of course, misinformation is in no way exclusive to social media. A guest on a national radio station stated during the week that COVID-19 “can be cured with Vitamin C and hydroxychloroquine”. By that logic, there’s no need for masks, social distancing or closing the pubs, for an orange a day keeps the COVID away. Those who deal in unprovable theories, dispute facts and endanger public health should not be given airtime in the media, and that should be even more obvious during a pandemic.
There are people who take issue with the wearing of masks. They’re a minority, but a vocal one. We know that, uncomfortable and awkward as masks are, wearing them helps prevent the spread of COVID-19. Self-declared ‘patriotic’ protestors, clad with pound shop tricolours and waving placards which describe the virus as ‘a hoax’, have stated that the mask mandate is infringing on their civil liberties. In reality, the most patriotic thing one can do is wear a face covering to protect those around us, and prevent those we care about from getting sick.
As we patiently await the development of a vaccine for COVID-19, there’s also the threat that anti-vaccine campaigners will attempt to persuade people not to get it; in other words, not to protect themselves. This cohort has been around for a long time, and time and time again they have threatened public health with scare rhetoric. In fact, we’re already seeing an information war between so-called anti-vaxxers and medical experts. If and when a vaccine is produced (which we hope will be soon, with 9 out of over 300 candidates in their trial phase), its safety and immunogenicity will naturally be the priority. The process of properly testing a vaccine takes time.
We’re in the midst of a pandemic; a health crisis. It’s imperative that we continue to listen to the advice of medical experts, continue to adhere to public health guidelines, and call out lies and unfounded rumours when we see them. Misinformation has had a detrimental effect on our efforts to suppress this virus, and it has almost certainly resulted in several deaths.
So, how do we tackle the spread of misinformation, in order to prevent it from reaching vulnerable people and potentially leaking into our national mindset? There’s only one way to do it, and that’s with facts and scientific evidence.
Luke Corkery is a second year student of International Relations at Dublin City University and a member of the Fine Gael party.