Literacy against “infodemic”: a search for solutions

Devie Rahmawati Lecturer in University of Indonesia’s Vocational Program

IO – Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, we are all faced with another “virus”, the “infodemic”. This “information pandemic” occurs in the form of the publication of hoaxes that provoke the people to engage in risky actions, reduce their trust in health authorities, and cause them to be overly confident. I will cite the example of the United States: No less than 13% of Americans believe that COVID-19 is a hoax, and 49% of them believes that it’s a conspiracy. This objective fact shows that the “infodemic virus” has also infected people in advanced countries. 

Western studies on the people’s response to crises (natural disasters, fatal diseases, etc.) show that there are four types of responses: compliance, conforming, adventurousness, and rebelliousness. The number of citizens in the “rebellious” category, i.e. those who refuse to comply to requirements and actively reject all efforts to mitigate the crisis, number about 10%-20% at most. This is not an insignificant number. Even though there are no in-depth studies concerning the people’s response to COVID-19, if we assume that just 10% of the 270 million Indonesian citizens are rebels who refuse to follow health protocols, then 27 million citizens confidently perform risky activities amid the pandemic. 

These rebellious individuals come from various tribes, races, religious faiths, educational levels, and economic levels. In the United States, a famous intellectual writer, a graduate from an elite university, expressed their belief that COVID-19 is a hoax. High-level religious figures in Indonesia have also expressed the same belief. To repeat: like any other virus, infodemic can infect absolutely anyone. 

Why does the infodemic spread so briskly? A summary of existing studies reveals the following factors: 

Information flood. According to data amassed by Go Globe, there are 98,000 Tweets, 1,500 blog updates, 168 million e-mails, 600 new videos in YouTube, 70 new web domains, 695,000 Facebook statuses, etc. published every minute in every day. The sheer volume and speed of information causes many individuals to have a problem in filtering the information that they consume every day. A lot of us even don’t know why we have to filter at all. 

A sense of heroism. Humans have the urge to become “heroes” for other humans. One of the ways to do this is by warning other people about dangers or otherwise sharing new information that can affect people – such as new “miracle drugs” that can cure the Coronavirus, or unclear information about the progress of COVID vaccine. They only want to be “heroes” that save others by sharing information, not because they have economic or political motivation. 

Misery loves company. Humans do not like to be alone. They seek to be connected to other humans. Therefore, they tend to want to share their anxieties, fears, and worries with others. When they receive frightful information, they will share it in order to share their negative emotions as well. This sharing of negativity is, in a way, their method of connecting with others. 

Humans tend to respond to new information using intuition instead of intelligence. Why is that? Because during our hunting-gathering days, using intuition is the fastest way to make a decision as we go face nature. A split second can determine swift escape from predators, or a successful hunt of our own. Therefore, humans are ingrained to expect fast answers for every problem that they face. This tendency is worsened with the swift creation and publication of information nowadays. It is not surprising at all that intelligence, which requires time and in-depth reflection, gets even more paralyzed. 

Technological advance has also made it harder to distinguish fakes from truth. Deep fake photos a videos have seamless editing that is so hard to tell whether it’s the original work or a rework. Furthermore, people tend to share info without verification because they simply don’t have enough knowledge and experience to confirm the information that they have. It’s only natural that they then disseminate untrue information. Once they have shared a piece of information, these people would tend to reject any potentially conflicting information with what they have shared, even if the conflicting new information is verified. On the contrary, they will continue to seek the kind of information that supports their original views. 

Some people are moved by economic incentives. They get financial benefits by promoting click bait. For them, producing hoaxes is an easy and lucrative livelihood. Others are moved by technology-based social incentives in the form of “likes”, “retweets”, “shares”, and “reviews”. They compete to get these digital “thumbs up” that show everyone how much they are liked and admired. The sensation created by hoaxes does give people attention and admiration, and this is attractive in its own dark way. 

How do we resolve the issue then? 

Convincing individuals who have been infected by hoaxes cannot use logical arguments, as they don’t like to be proven wrong and made to feel foolish. It would be better to create colorful, attractive, easy-to-understand visual representations of facts. This is because we are biologically built to receive and process visual information much faster than verbal ones. Academic studies have repeatedly show that attractive and constantly repeated images tend to be more memorable and trusted. 

We should also build a positively “nosey” mentality. We need to constantly question any piece of information that we receive: “Is that so?” “How do you know?” “Who said that?” “Did you see it for yourself?”  We also need to establish positive relations with the people who have been exposed to hoaxes. Positive relations are marked with high levels of trust. Therefore, it would be easier for us to communicate to these affected individuals that the information that they have received is untrue. True communication is a dialogue, not a dominating, judging monologue. We need to tell people that there is simply too much information going around, so that mix-ups can happen. Those who are infected with hoaxes must be gently persuaded to read alternative information that they can trust. Therefore, we need to show interest and respect of their opinions before sharing our own with them – and maybe correct them later.