It’s now trite to point out that the Internet has brought about a pandemic in disinformation, as people tend to share anything they come across that confirms their biases. Social media has hacked our brains in ways we did not expect, and platforms that were designed to keep our attention favoured and amplified content if it proved to foster engagement. The problem is that using engagement as a measure of quality is not accurate, as bad content tends to produce lots of engagement. Clickbait works for a reason, and misinformation, anger and fear sell.
One of the greatest policy debates of our time is how to tackle this problem. Democracy can only work if there is a shared understanding of reality, and online misinformation has been weaponised by unscrupulous actors to hack democratic institutions. Populations have been led to believe that experts cannot be trusted, and that their online partisan sources of information are the only ones to trust. Of course, this goes beyond online sources, but the problem has been exacerbated by social media. Whatsapp, Facebook and YouTube are at the forefront of the spread of disinformation. This contempt for expertise and proliferation of lies has spread to almost every aspect of public life, from health to education. As people become inundated with competing data sources, they tend to believe whatever fits their biases.
With no clear solution, we have continued to stumble with bland technological cures, lukewarm action by the tech industry, bad legislation, and outright encouragement from some governments. Populists realised that they could continue to hack the system to their advantage, and this could lead them to entrench their hold on power.
Enter Covid-19, the greatest public health threat of a generation. At first, it looked like the rapid spread of the novel coronavirus would be another opportunity for disinformation, and for the most part this took place as expected. As soon as information started to filter out of China that there was a possible pandemic in the horizon, the usual stream of rumours, conspiracy theories and memes took hold, and the disinformation made it all the way to the highest levels, with Trump going as far as calling it a Democratic hoax. People started sharing dismissing messages, it’s all an overreaction, nothing is happening, it’s another liberal plot like climate change.
But something interesting has been happening at the same time. While conspiracy theories abound, people appear to be listening to experts again. When a crisis threatens your life and that of your loved ones, a Whatsapp message from your friend which contains a meme claiming to come from “a friend of a friend” stops being so appealing, and people start listening to experts again. The speed of the disease has cleared a lot of heads, the reality of coronavirus acts like a big mug of caffeine after a night of heavy partying. The public are waking up asking to themselves “Oh dear, did I just share that anti-vaxx meme? What was I thinking? Never again!”
Don’t get me wrong, disinformation is still going strong, I just read a Twitter thread where people swear that the coronavirus was spreading in the UK as early as December, and there are hundreds of people sharing all sorts of weird conspiracies. But at the same time, news sources are experiencing extremely high ratings, and people are actually tuning in to become better informed. Sure, there’s still panic buying and hoarding of toilet paper, but for the most part people seem to be listening to expert advice, and taking this seriously. My Twitter timeline has been great, with truly useful information for the most part.
So perhaps there is a silver lining to this tragedy. We are undergoing a true crisis, and that will prompt people to remember why they used to trust experts in the first place. Gwyneth Paltrow’s onyx eggs are not going to help with a viral infection. Your uncle’s racist memes telling you that everything is fine and it’s all a plot by the Chinese will have less effect when you can see people falling ill all over the world.
So for now try to make sure not to trust everything you see online, and listen to the authorities and experts for one. Memes will not save you at this time, but listening to sound medical advice might do the trick.