COVID-19: Experts warn companies to guard against fake news to tackle crisis better

Published: Apr 26, 2020, 11:03 IST | PTI | New Delhi

False claims and fake news, mostly forwarded through social media platforms, have also led to several cases of religion-based attacks, hate speeches and other discriminatory activities, while cyber frauds are also on the rise

This picture has been used for representation purpose
This picture has been used for representation purpose

As the deadly coronavirus infection spreads fast in India and elsewhere, even faster is the spread of fake news regarding the pandemic and experts warn this 'infodemic' can have huge economic costs for companies across the world in addition to health concerns for the public at large. While authorities have announced severe penal actions for those spreading fake news regarding this pandemic, which has already caused nearly 2 lakh deaths globally with more than 28 lakh infections since its outbreak in China last December, widespread misinformation surrounding the disease has seen people drinking disinfectants and industrial alcohol while trying various rumoured treatments.

False claims and fake news, mostly forwarded through social media platforms, have also led to several cases of religion-based attacks, hate speeches and other discriminatory activities, while cyber frauds are also on the rise with scamsters seeking to take advantage of the crisis situation. In addition to the damages caused to public health and societal behaviour, experts warn the undeterred wave of fake news poses a huge risk to corporates, for whom it becomes difficult at times to filter out the right information that is crucial for them to ensure success of their business continuity, especially when almost the entire world is locked down.

Farah Lalani, who is a community creator for media, entertainment and information industries at the Geneva-based World Economic Forum (WEF), said businesses need to be proactive about calling out misinformation that is spreading about their brand, directing customers to official channels and making sure there is always clear and up to date information on all their social accounts. "While bad actors, fraudsters, and uninformed users can spread fabricated or misleading information, if businesses collaborate closely with the entire media ecosystem and regulatory bodies, they can start to work together to solve this very challenging problem," she told PTI.

In India, some organisations including industry bodies and advocacy groups have begun compiling official and credible information about the COVID-19 fight and the ongoing lockdown to help companies in their preparedness for tackling the crisis. Leading advocacy group Chase India, which was among the first to start this practice right from the initial days of the COVID-19 crisis emerging as a major threat in the country, has been sending across multiple daily updates to its clients, including on the latest actions taken by the central and state governments and also on initiatives being taken by various corporates.

Experts said the correct information is necessary for companies to help them understand, analyse and then implement various new guidelines being issued by the central and state governments. "In today's circumstances, besides the current public health crisis of COVID-19 and socio-economic impact related to climate change, one of the biggest concerns is legitimate and timely sourcing of information," Chase India's co-founder and Executive Vice President Manash K Neog said.

"As a public policy consultancy, our key challenge during the pre-lockdown phase was to mitigate frenzy around rumours of lockdown for our clients as it was creating panic for the operational teams of clients. "Further to that, we have institutionalised mechanisms such as our hourly and daily COVID-19 advisory trackers for the central and state governments to support clients with timely and authentic information basis which they are able to better plan their business continuity strategies," he added.

According to experts, companies are working hard to ensure timely access to right information as costs could be too high for them if they fall for some misinformation and in such a situation the role of media is also very important. Releasing a new survey recently, which found that just about one-fourth of the consumers in India currently pay for news but nearly two-thirds are willing to pay, the WEF said the current coronavirus challenge further emphasises the indispensable role that the media plays in society today.

With social media becoming the main platform for spread of false claims, giants like Facebook and Twitter have also begun deleting such posts and taking other actions. Some of the posts deleted on such grounds include those of public figures as well, the most famous being posts shared by Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro in which he had claimed anti-malaria prescription drug hydroxychloroquine was an effective treatment for COVID-19.

Twitter had also deleted a post by Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro in which he had apparently endorsed a "brew" for eliminating infectious genes. Various social media platforms have also imposed several restrictions on advertisements claiming various cures for COVID-19, while hate content regarding the pandemic is also being dealt with sternly. However, all these steps have not been able to totally eradicate the fake news flow, which the World Health Organization (WHO) Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus described as 'infodemic' in the context of the novel coronavirus.

"We are not just fighting an epidemic, we are fighting an infodemic," he said, referring to fake news as something that "spreads faster and more easily than this virus". United Nations' chief Antonio Guterres too said last month that an "infodemic of misinformation" was also an enemy that we all need to fight while battling COVID-19.

"To overcome the coronavirus, we need to urgently promote 'facts and science' and 'hope and solidarity' over despair and division," he said.

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