Pathology of misinformation

August 8 is humorously marked as the National Salt Day, the anniversary of the infamous incidence that revealed the height of Nigerians’ gullibility.l Although the fatal rumor, which resulted in two recorded deaths and at least 20 hospitalizations, has been attributed to different sources, the lamentable outcome is clear for all to see. This event revealed some of the terrible potentials of social media in spreading deadly information in matters of health and otherwise.

Rumors and rumor mongering have been in the books from the beginning of time. They have determined wars, toppled kingdoms, led to avoidable deaths and steered the course of history. A rumor may be defined as an unverified account or explanation of events circulating from person to person and pertaining to an object, event or issue in public concern.

Historians, sociologists and psychologists are some of the professionals that have been in recent times trying to demystify this mind boggling phenomenon. Robert Knapp, an American psychologist and one of the leading figures in the study of rumors, described three characteristics of rumors. The first is that they are transmitted by word of mouth, second that they provide “information” about a “person, happening or condition” and third that they express and ratify the “emotional needs of the community”.

Although rumors have been propagated through the ages, they pose a particularly serious problem in this age of easy and fast communication. In the previous generations, information could only travel far by means of travelers with slow means of transportation that took months to even years. Today however, the reach is wide and fast. For instance, the rumor about using salt to prevent ebola swept through the nation over a span of hours. It was reported that the text message that started it all was sent in the middle of the night and by sunrise a great portion of the population had heard it.

One thing that researchers have agreed upon is that misinformation has the greatest potency at times of fear and uncertainty. And that has been proven true time and again, the latest being the surge of misinformation during this pandemic. The problem is so great and widespread that people have often quipped that authorities have been battling two pandemics, Covid 19 and misinformation.

From the outright inane to the plausible, the range of the rumors is staggering and it remains an object of curiosity from whence these falsehoods emerge. Many rumors, especially in the political sphere are sometimes planned and coordinated in order to steer public opinion but numerous studies have shed more light on the origin of rumors. One of the conditions under which they arise is when there is demand for information which exceeds that which is provided by authoritative channels. In this case, people rely on each other for information.

The next issue of contention is how the content is formed and there are several theories from different experts. One of the most popular is based on experimental studies of serial transmission where a subject is asked to describe a picture or is given a message by the experimenter. He then repeats it to the next subject who repeats it to another and so on. The outcome of these studies is that the information undergoes modification at each stage; one of which is leveling, wherein the account grows shorter and more concise; sharpening, which is the selective perception, retention and reporting of a limited number of details; and finally assimilation, the tendency of the report to become more coherent and consistent with the presuppositions and interests of the subjects. In essence, a rumor results from faulty perception, flaws in memory and inability of most men to repeat, verbatim, complex reports that they have heard.

This explanation however will not fully explain the rumors commonly found in social media as memory no longer becomes an impediment. It then follows that other factors come into play in the generation of the rumor. The theory purported by psychoanalysts asserts that suppressed impulses are intentionally added to stories because the narrator can speak without assuming full personal responsibility for the inaccuracies by claiming he is only passing what he has heard.

Another view held by social scientists is that rumors are brewed in social interactions when people who are involved in inadequately defined situations pool their intellectual resources to form reasoned estimates in the form of speculations. In this case then, rumors are not intentional efforts to mislead but are honest attempts at making sense of ambiguous situations.

It is also important to add that it is believed that in situations of intense excitement, critical ability is relaxed and information that will ordinarily be questioned under other circumstances is believed.

The proof of the preceding assertion can be seen in the various rumors that have been circulating since the start of the current pandemic. From suggestions of less than orthodox cures to those bordering on occultism, social media has been a breeding ground for very ridiculous takes. Perhaps the most damaging of these are those that provide a false sense of security by either denying the existence of the virus altogether or providing “preventive strategies” like the salt water gargles that have made people relax their guard in taking precautions.

The internet has become a double edged sword with regards to rumors. On one hand is the potential of false information to travel at lightning speed. On the other, is the ease of access to information that allows for easy verification of any news. However it appears that the former has far more impact than the latter, with many people not taking the pains of verifying news before swallowing it whole and sharing with others.

The task at hand therefore is to encourage critical thinking and a healthy level of skepticism. Sources or references must always be sought for new information; and news from unorthodox and unofficial sources must always be taken with a grain of salt.

Education has a huge role to play in building these traits. People must learn the dangers of propagating false information.

Some governments have taken to legislating laws to help curb the spread of false information but activists are worried that such laws are infringements on human rights and may in fact be used by governments to stifle the voices of opposition. Whether these laws will be effective remains to be seen. Several social media platforms are also beginning to take similar steps through censorship and labeling of false information but face a similar dilemma in terms of right to freedom of expression.

On a final note, it is obvious that rumors are here to stay for the foreseeable future at least. It is a phenomenon that serves humans’ emotional and psychological needs, despite the dangers posed. Limiting such dangers is therefore the goal, and this can be achieved by maintaining such a level of skepticism that pushes one to verify information from unknown sources.

Tom writes from Abuja

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