Infodemic: The False Information Pandemic

On 27 March 2020, horrific news reports started coming out of Iran about the death of some 480 men, women, and children, and the serious illness of thousands of others. These were not caused by the COVID-19 pandemic that had been running rampant in the country and around the world during the weeks and months prior, but by something far more sinister. They were the direct result of people following false "advice" circulating on Iranian social media, which claimed that drinking methanol can prevent or cure the illness.

Besides the atrocious human toll, the truly shocking thing about this and similar rumors is their immense staying power and speed of spread. In this case, reports of deaths due to coronavirus-related methanol poisoning in Iran had emerged in early March, but still the rumor survived and flourished. It even spread beyond Iran into other regions and languages, appearing in social media posts elsewhere in the Middle East and in India. Indeed, the global rumors and lies swirling around the COVID-19 outbreak became so serious, that World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in February 2020: "We're not just fighting an epidemic; we’re fighting an infodemic."

It is easy to imagine that such misleading information is a modern phenomenon, yet that is far from the truth. On the morning of 31 October 1938, newspapers across the United States reported the panic that had gripped the nation the previous evening following a play entitled "The War of the Worlds" that had aired live on CBS Radio. The play had simulated a Martian invasion of Earth, and had reportedly been so believable that it sent thousands of terrified citizens fleeing from their homes. However, the real story here is not the radio broadcast, but the fact that emerged decades later stating that the reports of panic had been grossly exaggerated, and in some instances entirely fabricated. Why? Because as a new medium, radio was perceived by the newspaper editors as a threat to their industry and their livelihoods. They therefore attempted to discredit it as a reliable news source. Ironically, they did so by spreading false news themselves.

In the very near future, most of the information we will all come across on a daily basis will not be true.

Today, information can reach more people more quickly than ever before in history. This, coupled with increasingly sophisticated, ever more accessible technologies to manipulate and fabricate image, audio and video content means that it is becoming progressively easier to fool and manipulate most of the people most of the time. By the time you finish reading this paragraph, there will have been over half a million new tweets on Twitter and over 320,000 new posts on Instagram. There will also have been over 18 million text messages sent around the world. It is estimated that roughly 50 percent of this and all the other information we encounter online on any given day is false. It is further estimated that by 2022, that figure will have climbed to around 60-65 percent. In other words, in the very near future, most of the information we will all come across on a daily basis will not be true.

Disinformation is the deliberate creation and spreading of false information with the aim of bringing about some desired outcome. It covers every type of human activity and desire, from influencing election outcomes and sending soldiers off to war, to selling products online, and it comes in many different forms: Fabricated information, such as in propaganda and the brazen spreading of lies; impostor information, pretending to come from some authoritative source on the matter; misleading information that knowingly distorts the original intent of its creator, often by manipulating or concealing the original context of the story; and finally, satire, which, though false by definition, is frequently misconstrued as fact.

[Misinformation] is the driving force that powers the proverbial rumor mill and it is what can turn a lie into a "truth".

Misinformation, on the other hand, is the unintentional (though, admittedly, often irresponsible) act of spreading false information onward, believing it to be true. This is the driving force that powers the proverbial rumor mill and it is what can turn a lie into a "truth" for a group, a community, a country or even the entire world. Misinformation’s strength lies in its ability to take a small trickle of false information, amplify and regurgitate it through various channels and countless sources, until it becomes an immense torrent. "Repeat a lie often enough and it becomes the truth," is an old law of propaganda that rings true even today; perhaps especially today.

Both disinformation and misinformation play a decisive role in generating and perpetuating the so-called "fake news" and "alternative facts" culture which has come to dominate our public discourse and private communications.

Without sufficient misinformation to amplify it beyond a critical threshold, a piece of disinformation would quickly run out of steam and stop in its tracks.

Aside from malice and political ends, financial gain is the single greatest motivator for creating false information. This is mainly due to the attention-focu