Rumours, with doses of half-realism, have become the new normal as the advent of social networking sites and real time message sharing platforms has given a free run to perpetrators to spread misinformation.
Evidently, "misinformation" – a political buy-in, spirals in the time of every crisis, but while the world is stuck in a quagmire of woes, seeing Covid-19 spread in an unprecedented scale and the death toll mounting, miscreants are being provided with a convincing context to cultivate rumours and take advantage of vulnerable individuals and populace.
Any period of heightened anxiety tends to produce fearful rumours, and this is what we are experiencing right now.
The Director-General of the World Health Organisation (WHO), termed this plight of misinformation as "Coronavirus Infodemic" since an infodemic misleads the outbreak response in emergencies and intensifies public confusion about who and which information sources to trust; stems panic from unverified information ecology and exaggerated claims; and promotes xenophobic and racist forms of digital scapegoating.
"An Epidemic of Rumours", a 2014 book by folklorist Jon D Lee, surfaced similar context where he floated the idea that when anxieties recede, the pandemic stories people had created earlier often disappear from public memory.
However, when another bunch of anxieties appears, the old stories resurface in new forms, similar to the linkage of the SARS epidemic in 2002-03 with the current Covid-19 outbreak.
To justify, Lee traced back to some of those epidemic and pandemic stories having roots in previous centuries, and found out that medieval authorities were baffled with myriad of rumours relating to similar forms of outbreaks, stemming from different socio-cultural grounds.
Reading between the lines, if you think those ancient rumours sounded a lot like the ones which are circulating now, you are absolutely right. The only difference is, today's rumours outsmart the old ones because they travel faster through digital platforms.
Many people are now working from home, communicating with their dearest ones, and gathering information on the pandemic with the help of the internet.
A downside to this is that, many of them are also eagerly sharing their personal details. Therefore, any misinformation circulating on the internet at this crucial time can have devastating effects.
Some of the bizarre rumours included miracle cures to the coronavirus such as ingesting alcohol, cleaning products, thankuni (pennywort) leaves and garlic.
Fans of Cristiano Ronaldo were extremely worried when someone posted on social media that the football star had tested positive for Covid-19. In reality, he is still well and alive. It is surprising how large groups of people actually fall prey to such false speculations.
One important thing to note is that, if you cannot always trust official sources, you cannot always reject the unofficial ones either.
Therefore, a mixture of accurate and inaccurate information is inevitable, especially during a difficult period, but the continuous failures to hold the rein on rumours is frustrating.
The full-hoaxes and half-truths continue to spiral on social media platforms, despite official bodies promptly debunking them.
Evidently, social media and tech giants such as Facebook, Twitter, Google and Microsoft have been asked by multiple governments to monitor click bait misinformation and financial scams, and deploy the full power of technology and AI to fight the coronavirus instead.
According to media sources, Facebook has launched a fact-checking programme in Bangladesh to reduce the spread of misinformation and improve the quality of the news people see online.
Before releasing, airing, or publishing any report, responsible people at the news desk should run a thorough fact-check to filter out the misinformation.
However, beyond institutional actions by concerned agencies, every one of us has a responsibility when it comes to putting a cap on the circulation of rumours and fake news. No matter how interesting or share-worthy the information or picture may seem, we should think twice before hitting the share button.
As a conclusion to my article, I would like to mention the term "post-truth society" which is very much intertwined with the discussion I presented above.
A post-truth society is one where subjective opinions and unverified claims rival valid scientific facts under public influence, and reasoned arguments become downplayed.
Regrettably, we are living in a post-truth society where a wide array of social media users end up sharing statements and pictures that distort reality and serve to spread fear among people.
Sabbir Rahman Khan, Research Associate, Bangladesh Foreign Trade Institute (BFTI)