Rebecca K Kits
When the World Health Organization (WHO) used the term “infodemic” in February 2020, it was in reference to information, mostly false, about the COVID-19 outbreak. The origin of the term can be traced back to 2003 when journalist and political scientist, David Rothkopf used it first in a Washington Post column. In simple words, an infodemic is a blend of information and epidemic and it refers to the rapid spread of information—both accurate and inaccurate—in the age of the Internet and social media.
In Rothkopf’s words, “infodemic” means “a few facts, mixed with fear, speculation and rumor, amplified and relayed swiftly worldwide by modern information technologies…”
A decade later, the coinage holds more relevance than ever, especially in the Naga context. The phenomenon has gained greater frequency in recent years and has affected public response to issues, both major and minor.
Take, for example, the germination of multiple social media accounts and channels, with the sole or the main purpose of “disseminating information” relating to current affairs in the state.
With easily available and accessible media platforms, there is a rise in the number of self-styled reporters who cover, upload, and share content at will.
Initially, some of the contents were fun and informative, with some even tackling pertinent issues head-on. However, it rapidly went from people trying to dodge “You tubers” and vloggers on the streets to such channels escalating sensitive situations. Whether done deliberately or otherwise is a question that can be answered only when and if they are held accountable.
In print media, reporters and newspapers are held accountable for any and every report, and as such, news and reporting are based on facts and delivered with the highest level of ethical and professional standards possible.
On the contrary, the new age self-styled journalists are devoid of any accountability. Camera and mic in hand, any person can now pose as a journalist irrespective of whether s/he is authorised or whether s/he has the requisite qualification. This, in turn, has aided in the spread of misinformation, disinformation and mal-information on a daily basis.
According to the California State University San Marcos, misinformation is the sharing of false information, without the intent to harm or deceive. Disinformation, on the other hand, is the deliberate sharing or dissemination of information “in order to influence public opinion or obscure the truth.” Mal-information is when genuine information is shared to cause harm.
In the absence of proper, legal and regulatory mechanisms, such channels and portals continue to operate in Nagaland without being subject to any retribution.
With the Nagaland state assembly polls around the corner, the chances of misinformation and mal-information are even higher. What followed the incident of pre-poll violence in the Dimapur-II constituency on February 18 serves as a glaring example. The incident sparked a series of sensational content online, with headlines that included allegations of “life attempt” on a particular candidate, besides various unverified reports that got circulated in a short time span. Not only did such reports cause more confusion, they also, in a way, contributed to the escalation of the situation.
Of late, public apologies have emerged as the ultimate quick fix to issues in the Naga society. But by the time a public apology or clarification is issued, a large number of people may have already consumed the misinformation.
Having limited access to print media, a considerable number of Nagaland’s population is reliant on social media for their daily news source. What they may not realize is that such reports may not be reliable or accurate. In such a scenario, it holds true that “misinformation can acquire power through repetition, creating an illusion of truth.” Therefore, tackling the challenge of misinformation goes beyond issuing clarification and public apologies.
In the present context, unless there is a regulation on unverified reports and platforms, there is an imminent threat to a free and fair election process. The internet and social media have the capacity to shape and reshape narratives. They provide cheap, effective and easy means to spread information, constructive or otherwise.
While we wait for a law or policy to counter misinformation, in the individual capacity, a simple fact check before sharing a post on social media, checking the source and considering the agenda will go a long way in keeping a check on the spread of misinformation.
With social media and the internet technology amplifying the spread of information, if regulatory and monitoring efforts do not keep up pace, wrongful manipulation of opinion online and its negative impact on the upcoming elections will be the imminent result.
A Clean Election should not only be about putting an end to sale of votes, it should also extend to freeing the society of all such elements that threaten the integrity of the electoral process.
This is a guest editorial by Rebecca K Kits. The writer is a former Sub-Editor of The Morung Express. Comments can be sent to [email protected]