On September 7, Kathmandu police arrested Subas Subba Limbu on the charge of accusing doctors involved in the treatment of Covid-19 patients of removing organs of Covid-19 victims. He was one among several self-claimed ‘experts’ who were busy giving interviews to YouTube channels about the coronavirus and Covid-19.
The presence of such experts on YouTube and other social media platforms have turned this pandemic into an infodemic. There are many people around you who are claiming that Covid-19 is not a pandemic at all, this is just a scam run by the medical corporate mafia including the WHO. There are many conspiracy theories alike such as the one claimed by Limbu.
As per the Nepal Twitter Users Survey conducted by the Centre for Media Research-Nepal in November last year, 95% of Nepali internet users are exposed to disinformation. Apparently, the flow of such unverified information and false information has increased amidst the pandemic.
However, controlling this flow is next to impossible. There come questions of freedom of expression and speech. In today’s world, no one can stop anyone from expressing their opinions as at the heart of democracy lies the freedom of speech. Neither can police or concerned authorities arrest or take legal actions on hundreds of them.
So, how can the confused mass look at the issue? Experts of different fields suggest the public, the media, and the government have their own shares of responsibilities.
Media literacy: Audience’s duty to judge
Kundan Aryal, a media educator at Central Department of Journalism and Mass Communication in Tribhuvan University, thinks the government cannot control such activities, but the mainstream media have to be responsible to ensure the free flow of right information.
“From the lens of freedom of speech, we do not look too much into the role of the government. rather we look for the role of the media. It is their responsibility to not confuse the public or mislead them.”
For Aryal, this problem is also related to the idea of media literacy. In many countries where the rate of media literacy is high, audience members themselves critically judge what and how much to believe and what and how much not, and filter the contents of the media. However, this is not the case here.
Aryal believes that each individual has their own filter by which they verify or evaluate the media contents by using their knowledge, wisdom, and experience. The major basis for their verification can be by questioning the credibility of the media via which such contents are coming.
Likewise, journalist Shree Ram Paudel, also another faculty member of the department, shares, “While consuming any type of media content, the audience needs to be aware and have the capacity to filter them. Media literacy plays a great part here.”
Further, he explains, “If we see this from a practical approach, there are two types of news, one that should be given to the public by finding them, and the other type of information is generally searched by the public themselves. During the period of the pandemic, both types should be considered. And, For those who cannot critically filter or are not media literate, the government should be responsible to provide the truthful information.”
But, before the government, it is the ‘mainstream’ media’s responsibility to provide truthful information to the people as the rate of media literacy is very low in Nepal, Aryal suggests.
To be precise, what mainstream media can do in this case is that they need to inform the people that some misleading contents are also being circulated around them and making them aware of why it is misleading. The media should help their audiences judge the media contents, according to him.
Aryal says the mainstream media should come forward to include controversial issues to clear doubts among the public. Noting that there are many issues that the mainstream media do not talk about, but social media users including YouTube channels are exaggerating, he says the mainstream media also need to conduct “full-fledged discussions” on such conflicting and confusing issues and make people aware.
Likewise, Paudel says the communicators, who create contents, should also be responsible, “You yourself should be responsible while using your right to freedom of expression. Everyone as a citizen has the right to speak in the matter of public concern. However, if the matter is technical, it is always better that technicians or experts in that sector speak, but the experts should update their knowledge regularly.”
Paudel advises further, “They need to present their ideas with sufficient reasoning and facts. Experts should put forward their views, being truthful and with a lot of reasoning. They also need to consider the seriousness of the situation, for example during this pandemic.”
Regarding the role of mainstream media, Aryal and Paudel have slightly different views. Aryal thinks the mainstream media have an opportunity to prove why there still exists the significance of a media organisation in our society even when there are social media and other forms of new media. But, Paudel also thinks the pandemic might have crippled the efficiency of the “mainstream” media also.
“It is no secret that there has been a huge economic impact on the media industry due to this pandemic that has forced them to limit the human resources and the area of the reporting.”
But, Aryal believes when and where responsible and authentic media outlets come forward actively, there will be no place for false, confusing and misleading contents.
Aryal predicts that there could emerge chaos if there comes a situation in which people start believing each and every content given to them by any media.
Misinformation as a security threat and government’s role
Corroborating with Aryal, retired Nepal Police DIG Hemanta Malla Thakuri also thinks the dominance of misinformation could also be a security threat in the future.
“The concept of security threat is way beyond what we generally understand. Generally, we take protests, robberies, fights, and these things as a security threat. There exists many security threats such as medical or health security threats, environmental security threats, and many more.”
As a possible solution to this issue, Thakuri suggests that the government should take the lead and give easy and truthful information to the public, repeatedly on a daily basis so that the general public has a clear view of this.
Paudel also shares a similar opinion regarding the role of government in this issue, also criticising the government for failing to play this role. He puts forward, “Rather than giving priority to the pandemic, the engagement of the government is mostly seen within the ruling party’s internal conflicts. The density of the flow of information by the government (as it just gives an update every 24 hours) is not enough to actually clear all the doubts and confusions.”
Additionally, he recommends, “In this situation where the public is so confused, concerned authorities that include the Ministry of the Health and Population and other mechanisms under this ministry, should come to the frontline and clarify repeatedly on a regular basis.”
Why keeping people safe from false information and rumours is important
In the world of social media where a way to control the flow of information is rare, except self-censorship, the flooding of multiple views on one particular issue is not strange.
According to psychologist Basu Acharya, the flooding of misinformation or disinformation is bound to arouse irritation and anger among the confused public. This may also induce a serious mental problem called acute stress disorder, leading to trauma.
Acharya asks those who are speaking or making claims on such sensitive matters without even calculating the impacts of their views on the general public to be mindful of what they are sharing. But, he implies, it is the public’s, the consumers’ responsibility, to protect themselves from any disaster.