Misinformation: Why We Should Blame Popular Media

An author postulated (and I agree) that people formulate conspiracy theories about any phenomenon when they are unable to navigate the complex problem surrounding that phenomenon.

That said,

While pondering on this topic, I thought to myself, were there no misguided information or fake news or conspiracy theories before the advent of social media? For instance, during the wake of the Spanish Flu in 1918?

Curiosity led me to dig deep into history a bit. Here’s what I found about conspiracy theories during the 1918’s Spanish Flu that led to the death of over 40 million people globally.

First, similar to COVID-19, it was believed that pharmaceutical companies ‘intentionally’ spread diseases and then produced corresponding drugs to make profit. One of such drugs was aspirin, produced by a German pharmaceutical company, Bayer.

Second, a woman also reportedly claimed that she saw a “toxic cloud spreading over Boston as a camouflaged German ship drew close to the harbor” meaning Germans creeped into the city with a certain type of germs and released them in crowded places.

Third, although the origin of the Spanish Flu is contested till date, it was called different names by different countries based on the country they assumed it came from. For instance, the Spanish people called it the ‘French Flu’ and ‘German Flu’ in Brazil.

Having said these, do we still blame social media for the overflow of fake news? Absolutely! Here are my thoughts,

First, social media has saturated our lives, we are more connected to one another than ever, news and just any form of information can spread at an unprecedented speed because we have continuous access to our gadgets.

Many actually rely on social media especially twitter for every news. So since it is a ‘free space’ for everyone, “over abundance of information” (infodemic) and inevitably misinformation and other manipulative information will spread faster. For instance W.H.O observed that in just a month, there were over 550 million tweets, 361,000,000 YouTube videos and 19,200 articles about COVID-19

We have seen this especially during election periods in different parts of the world. Recall that Donald Trump’s twitter account was deleted in 2020 for this same cause according to Twitter.

In fact three MIT scholars in 2018, after a thorough research about the Twittersphere discovered that “falsehood diffuses significantly farther, faster, deeper, and more broadly than the truth, in all categories of information, and in many cases by an order of magnitude”. The BBC agreed too! And the most common subject is political news

Before the advent of social media, information was largely gotten via the mainstream media which very few people had access to, even the middle class and those who could not afford a radio relied on opinion leaders to shape their own opinion.

But in our dispensation, I can craft my sometimes selfish opinion as fact, share with my over 5000 followers from different parts of the world to consume. And if I don’t exaggerate the story or paint in a “more surprising, or disgusting” tone, I might never get attention.

I recall during the Ebola outbreak in Nigeria, the healthcare sector had to contend with the spread of misinformation about the cure and preventive strategy for the disease.

One viral news that plagued the internet was that the consumption of salt water (for bathing and drinking) is the cure for Ebola. Unfortunately, it was later reported that some individuals died as a result of excessive use of salt water.

There are more fake news with the novel COVID-19 outbreak that we all might have seen like the disease being a hoax or vaccine being a death sentence that can cause infertility or the disease a western idea to eradicate Africa and the list goes on…

To conclude, as we all thrive to make sense of our interconnected and complex world, curbing misinformation is still a consequential puzzle for the government, researchers and tech companies, however, the onus lies on each of us to play our role to curtail this menace.

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Abigail Olajire

Abigail Olajire

A communication researcher with a keen interest in the media and developmental policies that has the propensity to spur growth