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The global disruption unleashed by the coronavirus disease (Covid-19) has led to an uptick in the use of social media platforms such as WhatsApp, Facebook, TikTok and Twitter. Facebook’s usage, for example, has increased by as much as 50% in countries hardest hit by Covid-19, whereas the Twitter usage in India has gone up by 30% between early-February and end-March. With the lockdown likely to continue in some form or other, the reliance on social media is likely to rise further.
This has, however, exacerbated pre-existing challenges around curbing misinformation. Some forms of misinformation, such as a motivational quote misattributed to industrialist Ratan Tata, may be benign, but they can often have severe consequences. In April, 10 people in Andhra Pradesh were found in a semi-conscious state after they followed a “home remedy tip” for the coronavirus they found on TikTok. Similarly, misinformation about the role of specific communities in spreading the virus can further deepen the social divide.
Tackling misinformation is a very delicate dance that requires us to traverse a narrow corridor between accurate information and free speech. As many as seven countries including Egypt, Malaysia and China have brought in legislation to control fake news, and almost all of them have been accused of committing excesses. Sensing the danger such steps can invite, an independent European Union committee has advised against bringing laws to curb misinformation.
There are no easy responses, however. Society needs to build resilience and infrastructure to be able to tackle this scourge. It calls for a holistic national strategy, with clear roles for social media platforms, governments and individuals.
To know more, read the full op-ed here.