Viral Gossip and Story-Mongering TODAY

Daily News Editorial, 4 May 2020

“Going viral” is now a popular catchword which, after this real-life pandemic, must surely ring more ominously. The deathly ambience of COVID-19, both physically and economically lethal, also drives home to us the dangers of instant, mass scale, indiscriminate spreading of sensational messages.

The United Nations, which marked World Press Freedom Day on May 3rd (yesterday), has made a call on the world’s citizens to be alert to the mass scale spreading of disinformation about the pandemic.

“As the [COVID-19] pandemic spreads, it has also given rise to a second pandemic of misinformation, from harmful health advice to wild conspiracy theories. The press provides the antidote: verified, scientific, fact-based news and analysis,” UN Secretary-General António Guterres has said in a message.

In bizarre contrast, a message circulating in social media these days claims (in summary):  “…In China, where every household has a COVID-19 case, people do not go to hospital for treatment or cure. Instead, they treat themselves with heat inhalations and hot gargles four times a day…. By the fourth day they are no longer COVID positive… .” The message claims to be a translation of a message sent “by an Indian living in Wuhan”. Readers will be forgiven if they look askance at the Daily News for even highlighting such rubbish.

Sri Lanka being the most literate country in South Asia, most readers know that China, the world’s most populous country, is esteemed not only for its economic success, but also for its State-run social welfare system including a massive public health system. A moment’s reflection will make us realise that not many of China’s 1.5 billion citizens would be relying solely on such heat treatment for curing COVID-19.

What must concern us is that some of our own citizens are spreading this ‘fake news’. This fake message then lists the heat treatment as if to encourage such minimal response to the deadly disease. This disinformation could be as deadly as the virus itself because COVID-19 positives or their family could be misled into attempting home ‘heat treatment’ instead of immediately informing the healthcare agencies.

While our medical personnel are risking their lives night and day to contain the pandemic, the country’s news media industry, both private and public, is also working continuously to keep citizens updated. While news media ownerships have their own news policy idiosyncrasies, the news professionals – from reporters to camerapersons to fact-checkers, broadcasters and web editors – must be, and are, professional in their delivery of  ‘news’ to citizens. Their efficiency must match the deadly speed of the contagion to keep the whole population updated about curfews, food supplies and livelihood prospects.

Even if, thanks to cyber technology, many news professionals can operate from home, some camerapersons and reporters must go on the field, into the disease locations to record the incidence of the pandemic and its social impact. After all, our viewers and readers want to know every aspect of the contagion in whatever manner it is affecting our lives.

In that sense, the country’s news professionals are undergoing a health risk as well, although they do not get into direct touch with affected persons as do the medical workers and police and Security Forces. Some wayward news professionals or media outlets may slant ‘news’ in this way or that, according to owners’ whims. But the vast bulk of the world’s news media takes pride in the accuracy of their news products, labouring throughout the night and in the most difficult conditions.

The sheer complexity and multiplicity of professional news outlets ensures to the public the ability to cross-check any information they come across.

Cyber technology today has transformed the world of communications and public knowledge. Systems of information sharing have been turned upside down. While the professional news industry maintains centralised information processing and mass distribution systems, the smartphone, tablet and the Internet have given an almost equal power to every person to similarly ‘mass communicate’. However, no single individual, even if she/he has such equipment, has the capacity to undertake the information gathering and verification that a professional news organisation possesses.

This is where the single citizen possessing such technology and bewitched by this new found power to ‘inform’ others becomes prey to temptations. This power to instantly and freely transmit is an ego-booster. One cannot resist the temptation to forward sensational or unusual ‘information’ that someone else forwards. One is tempted to proliferate one’s opinion or perception of an actual event or phenomenon without the full knowledge all its ramifications that can only be obtained by consulting others first.

The news media continues to suffer the consequences of attempting to report the facts and inform the public  – by its experience of political repression, and the pressures of commercial interests. World Press Freedom Day serves to remind news audiences of the media’s proud successes in the face of viral disinformation and actual viral pandemics.

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Filed under accountability, coronavirus, doctoring evidence, security, self-reflexivity, slanted reportage, sri lankan society, taking the piss, the imaginary and the real, transport and communications, truth as casualty of war, welfare & philanthophy, world events & processes

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