Infodemic and disinformation of the COVID-19: A reflect of the systemic crisis in the post-truth era

The COVID-19 pandemic is a health crisis that has claimed the lives of nearly 4 million people worldwide. But this is not the only emergency we are facing as humanity. A WHO report points out that misinformation may generate the next crisis.

From home remedies, self-medication, healing potions, anti-vaccine and conspiracy theories, among other hoaxes, disinformation is leveraged by the growing mass access to internet-connected devices that allow the rapid dissemination of false or unverified information, which is spread, sometimes even with harmful intentions.

Misinformation has been aggravated by the pandemic. Several factors have contributed to this: contradictory or incomplete information about a virus unknown to most of the people, absence of medical protocols to deal with cases, economic and social crisis due to enclosures, and the forced digitalization of many activities that were previously done in person. The pandemic has been the breeding ground for the germination of misinformation, conspiracy theories and, in general, a climate of suspicion and uncertainty in the face of any message about the situation.

Through today’s different communication platforms, information flows unfiltered, generated by any individual with no credentials to report on specialized topics, giving way to the invention of myths and stories that easily go viral, activating waves of opinion and diffuse beliefs that deepen the climate of misinformation and mistrust.

The different waves of misinformation are interwoven with the factual when acting and seeking information that confirms previous views, known as confirmation bias, “which leads individuals to believe only in information that confirms their prejudices, discarding arguments and evidence that challenge their previous thinking”.

This creates an environment of what we know today as post-truth, the “deliberate distortion of a reality, which manipulates beliefs and emotions in order to influence public opinion and social attitudes”. In his book, Post-truth, Mclytire tries to explain the possibility that humanity today finds itself in a situation where “alternative facts” replace genuine facts and feelings are heavier than objective, hard evidence.

It is a fact that the infodemic or demand for information increased considerably and, along with it, journalists from all regions of the world began to publish science news without having been trained for this type of specialized coverage. The pandemic also revealed the need to increase efforts to strengthen science journalism, which is decisive in promoting and defending access to sensitive, qualified, and timely public information.

To understand this phenomenon, last year, UNDP, through the Accelerator Lab and in coordination with UNESCO and the company Citibeatsconducted an experiment on citizen perceptions about the pandemic. Through Citibeats’ Artificial Intelligence platform on social listening, we categorized and identified lines of opinion and conversations that could set a trend, or denote the needs, concerns and questions of citizens in real time regarding the impact of COVID-19 on their well-being. 

For this purpose, using ethical Artificial Intelligence, more than 100,000 anonymous opinions extracted from Twitter and digital media related to the COVID-19 crisis were collected and analyzed for the period from March to August 2020, around social issues relevant to the pandemic context and our work. These include: tourism, pandemic, citizen security, gender, among others.

Hence our main findings (see the full report here), we found that the conversation of citizens and their concerns during the time studied were diverse, with tourism, security measures and the state of social protection being the issues that generated the most conversation. In addition, gaps of misinformation were identified regarding security measures and health measures to combat COVID-19.  It was observed how governmental measures over the months generate spikes in conversation on the different topics of study. The disinformation crisis is one more piece impacted by the systemic shock of the COVID-19 crisis.

This is the time to reinvent ourselves, to hypothesize new realities, where the fourth power, communication, will be a pillar that fosters resilient nations and ensures a strengthening of trust in institutions. The pandemic has left us with lessons to create a new and improved normality in which we think about the opinions and power that humans have to change the future, where it is key to seek mechanisms to limit misinformation, while promoting the voice of citizens and freedom of expression.
At Citibeats, because we’re dealing in the world of AI and groundbreaking technology, we’re surrounded by a lot of facts, numbers and data. And while these are all extremely important and essential components of our mission, we believe that it’s extremely important to harness data for development and inclusion —as a critical cross-sectoral urban issue for the next decade and beyond.

We work daily with the vision of envisioning the future of cities, governance and empowered citizens in an ideal future –beyond the facts and figures.

What “utopia” does our collective imagination conjure?

We’re in alignment with some of the most progressive and, in our opinion, most brilliant thinkers and innovators of our time.

Spanish version here. 

See the full report here.

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