The Impatient Patient: solution to an emerging “infodemic” is responsibility, accountability

By Renee Wang

Created by Renee Wang using
During this pandemic, it is important to stay informed and stay safe.

We don’t know when the cure for COVID-19 will come. We don’t know if schools and offices will reopen soon. We don’t know when we can expect life to return to normal. In our current pandemic, there aren’t too many answers available. However, there is a plethora of misinformation.

In an “infodemicwhere our president suggests injecting disinfectants to fight COVID-19, celebrities with huge platforms spread conspiracy theories about the coronavirus and close friends and family frantically dole out half-truths about the disease ensuring the spread of accurate information is more essential than ever.

Although President Donald Trump later clarified that he was being sarcastic and the White House noted that media outlets were taking his comment out of context, it does not matter. In a news conference heard by hundreds of reporters and later read by thousands of Americans, it is inevitable that a comment made by the person holding the highest authority in the nation would hardly be taken lightly, sarcastic intent or not.

Similarly, although rapper Wiz Khalifa and actor Woody Harrelson are two very different celebrities, they are also two sides of the same coin when it comes to spreading misinformation.

According to researchers from Queensland University of Technology’s Digital Media Research Center, Khalifa (who has 40 million people following his Facebook page) and Harrelson shared a theory that linked 5G cell phone towers to the spread of the coronavirus. 

Soon after, researchers discovered a spike in shares of the cell phone tower conspiracy following its promotion by the above-mentioned celebrities. 

Politicians and celebrities are responsible for spreading or producing 20 percent of false claims about the coronavirus, according to a research by Oxford’s Reuters Institute for the study of journalism. While 20 percent may be the tip of the iceberg, the social media engagement of these public figures — 69 percent — is extremely influential and far-reaching.

These public figures, Professor Axel Bruns of Queensland University said, are “super-spreaders” who have the power to make things go truly viral. And, with great influence comes great responsibility.

According to NBC New York, following the president’s comment, New York City’s Poison Control Center received twice the number of calls relating to exposure to household chemicals. 

In the case of the 5G cell phone towers, more than 30 incidences of arson and vandalism have occurred against wireless towers across Britain. Furthermore, there have been around 80 incidences of telecom technicians being harrassed while doing their job, according to the New York Times.

While we cannot directly blame the celebrities who inspired these acts, we also cannot deny that their power as “super-spreaders” of information certainly helped propel the 5G cell phone tower conspiracy theory.

Furthermore, 5G infrastructure is critical to ensuring compliance to stay-at-home orders, according to UK National Health Service Director Stephen Powis.

“This … impacts on our ability as an industry to maintain the … operational capacity of the networks to support mass home working and critical connectivity to the emergency services, vulnerable consumers and hospitals,” a representative from Mobile UK said in a BBC News article.

Although conspiracy theories and misinformation live online, they impact the real lives of the people reading them. Especially during a time of heightened crisis, information — whether or not it is accurate, or even said under a sarcastic pretense — holds more currency than ever.

In the scramble for answers, it is easy to cling onto what we think are answers. In the mess of misinformation and uncertainty, it is easy to be more fearful and combative than rational.

Celebrities and politicians need to be better at understanding their role, especially after having garnered such large platforms. We can do better as well. Although the average American may not have an online presence as large as a celebrity or politician, we do have the power to control our own social media accounts.

Even if you have 500 followers, chances are maybe at least 100 have seen your misinformed post, and a few took the misinformation to be true. From there, it spirals: the five people may repost the misinformation, and their own followers will view it and make the choice to propel it forward even more. Scrolling through Instagram stories, it is not uncommon to see a user post one thing and have it re-posted several times throughout the day.

The  solution to an “infodemic” is simple: solidarity in ensuring the responsible spread of information.

Before we post, we need to consult with ourselves on the impact and accuracy of the information we are sharing.