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Covid-19: Truth be told


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In quarantine with the internet makes fertile ground for conspiracies, misdirection and information that is just plain wrong. But do we make things worse by angrily confronting the lies asks LGIU’s Jane Sankarayya.

Misinformation, disinformation, conspiracy theories have always been with us and they flourish during times of crisis. The black death, 9/11, the global financial crash of 2007/08 were all fertile ground for bizarre, offensive or downright dangerous assertions – from eating raisins to keep the plague away, to Israeli involvement in the Twin Towers destruction, to George Sorros as the mastermind behind world economic meltdown.

These days we are way beyond a scurrilous village square gossip. We are in quarantine with the internet. Billions of anxious people have acres of time on their hands and a million different rabbit holes down which they can jump.

One of the most prominent and weirdest conspiracy theories at the moment is the one linking 5G to coronavirus. In a matter of weeks it made the leap from social media – from facebook to the chatrooms to twitter – on to, of all places, ITVs This Morning, where Eamonn Holmes took issue with the media “slapping down” the 5G theory because it “suits the state narrative” (he has since backtracked and claimed everyone misunderstood him or something).

Our willingness to give credence to conspiracy theories, to accept without challenge a particular interpretation of a piece of data is discussed by Chris Hayes and Carl Bergstrom in this really interesting podcast. Our search for causality is understandable – but it can lead to misinterpretation, the wrong conclusions, scapegoating and a desire to apportion blame and seek redress. And the very randomness and uncontrollability of illness and disease seems to make us ever more desperate for cause and blame – so vaccines cause autism, HIV is God’s punishment for being gay.

We are sure that what we believe is true because it feels right and that’s a way of behaving that is validated by no less than the current President of the USA. His ‘gut’ will tell him when it is right to reopen the country for business, no fact checking necessary.

All this matters because it affects people, it affects communities, it affects the places we live. Infrastructure is attacked – like the 5G masts – and people are attacked because they are seen as coming from China.

This readiness to accept unproven assertions as truth or believe a baseless conspiracy theory to be a convincing explanation spills over into other behaviour.

Shaming others on social media for breaking social distancing rules seems to be something that more and more people are keen to do on their own (non rule breaking) walks. But the accusatory tweets are based on guesswork and interpretation.

We hear reports of abuse being shouted (from a safe distance of course) at people who are setting off for the day in their cars, or notes being shoved through the doors of neighbours who are seen regularly leaving the house. The abuser doesn’t know the driver and doesn’t know that she is a nurse going to start her shift; but that doesn’t matter. They don’t need to establish facts or ask questions because they feel they must be right, their gut tells them that a person is breaking social distancing rules so it must be true, no fact checking necessary.

And all this matters because it is so hard to counter – “falsehood flies, and truth comes limping after it”. The immediate response when we come across a deliberate and malicious falsehood on social media is to get straight on to social media to counter it. But this might not be the wisest move. Molly McKew cautions against the “rage-engage” cycle with some sound advice about damping down the flames of conspiracy: reposting false content on social media or linking to it or referencing a hashtag to angrily denounce it just increases the reach of the original post. With this in mind WhatsApp announced that it was limiting the number of times a message could be forwarded.

Sometimes it is necessary to confront malicious information because it is having real life consequences; the large mobile phone companies attempted to address the vandalism to 5G masts in an open letter.

Confusion among authorities surely can’t help. If the police seem unclear about whether people can buy Easter eggs or sit on a park bench, what hope is there for the rest of us to get it right? Perhaps new guidance from the National Police Chief’s Council will help.

Councils well know from their work during normal times – particularly perhaps during election periods –  the importance of guarding against misinformation with accessible and reliable guidance and information. And we’ve seen some excellent work from councils over the last few weeks, primarily around providing guidance and signposting resources for residents, including the most vulnerable groups in our communities, and business.

Related briefing

LGIU briefing: Coronavirus: How local government communications can make a difference

All LGIU Covid-19 resources are being provided free of charge, including our Global-Local news bulletin highlighting how local governments around the world are responding to the pandemic. 


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