When Life Itself is Under the Weather: Building Resilience in the Infodemic Age

Information Literacy in the Age of Data Source: www.weforum.org

Ever wondered why a ‘tweet’ went ‘viral’, a common term in our digital culture. As the saying goes, that life imitates art, and thus our language borrows from different epistemic registers of thought in order to express a phenomenon comprehensively. 

The rapid spread of a tweet, parallels the velocity of spread of a biological virus, hence infecting our everyday life and lexicon with something as distasteful as ‘viral’. In a moment of irony, the current COVID-19 global pandemic according to the World Health Organisation is an ‘Infodemic’; a condition which diagnoses an information climate of an avalanche of data points where the recipient is unsure of the validity of every data point, and which one will be the most useful. 

Fear as known can be more potent than the biological virus itself, as it cripples and paralyses the very thinking needed to respond in a crisis. 

In the post truth era, with diminishing faith in the institution of scientific research, trust in data is at its utmost premium where it is a matter of life and death, an incorrect step can lead to a disaster, endangering lives individually and in the community. 

The post truth era is a product of highly divisive politics where polarisation has meant communities are deeply untrusting of each other. The culture wars in the United States between the evangelical Red States and the liberal Blue States have been playing out since the past quarter of a century. 

The globalisation of culture wars through populist politics yielding in democratically elected leaders such as Bolsanaro, Duterte and Modi have led to ideological wars moving to the digital realm where troll wars are fought out in the most toxic and viscous vain. 

The populism is not unfounded as legitimate concerns of a large swathe of voters are vented at the ballot when the liberal politics of the day has not delivered on the promises of the politics and performance of globalisation. A lot of information online is genuinely untrue and deep fake, is the new frontier where data authenticity is next to improbable for a common person. 

As seen in the Cambridge Analytica episode, social media data is weaponised by politicians to generate bespoke voter level news feeds, propagating a ‘bubble’. This Bubble is not grounded in rationality and evidence. There have been a lot of speculation regarding Russian involvement in the 2016 US Presidential Elections through troll farms (a village in Ukraine is responsible for disseminating most fake news for instance) dis-balancing the narrative. The ongoing Qatar Blockade was triggered by hacking Twitter accounts and the implantation of fake news. 

The consequences of an information war are devastating. The first casualty is often mistrust in data released by the communities either side of the political aisle. Trust is needed to deal with international disasters such as COVID-19, which is a once in a lifetime event (fingers crossed, as Yuval Noah Harari spoke to Christiane Amanpour that this is the biggest pandemic since the 1918 Spanish Flu) where decisive action is a ‘Society as a Whole’ engagement. 

When societies are highly divided ideologically, credible scientific evidence is doubted which leads to people refusing vaccination and the right course of treatment. The personal politics becomes highly problematic when it endangers public health safety and innocent lives. Personal thus is political. 

Our smartphones are pinging away to glory, now a days as ‘Social Distancing’ is the norm. Social Distancing is an oxymoron of a term, as in essence it is physical distancing rather than social. 

Thanks to this timely intervention on an unprecedented worldwide scale, we are even more connected digitally with forwards regarding the pandemic prevention flooding our feeds and inboxes. Human beings are social creatures; hence our socialising is being transferred to the cloud with WhatsApp Video Calls substituting in person meetings. The digital reflects and refracts the material reality of our lived experiences. 

The quarantines in China and Iran have inspired digital journaling of daily chores, with a regional audience, undergoing the same trauma demonstrating a shared humanity under a lockdown. The most common shares are regarding food, particularly of millennials who have never cooked proper food earlier, however, must cook under quarantine conditions. Chinese Millennials have over depended on the ‘Tabao’ or take away culture. 

Beijing Based Graphic Artist Krish Raghav in his unique cartoon article for the prestigious New Yorker Magazine, drew of the same, inspiring a sub-genre of art under a lockdown. White collar knowledge workers under self-quarantine with ‘Work From Home’ permissions, are sharing posts on LinkedIn with their peers cataloguing their days as if to recreate a communal office environment and slay boredom in the same breath. 

In this elevated hyper connected era, we need to be better trained in information literacy as an antidote to build immunity against incorrect decision making. Companies and Universities need to create educational modules to be delivered digitally (where else?) on information literacy to combat fake news and to facilitate improved decision making in information saturated contexts. 

The elderly who are most at risk due to COVID-19 are also at risk to fake news and are known to be a demographic segment responsible for the sharing on fake news as well. 

To keep up with the times and connect with their children and grand kids, many elderly folks in their sixties and seventies are on Facebook and WhatsApp share unverified information unknowingly. 

I have made my sixty-five-year-old academic mother, who is a frequent social media post sharer aware of her follies. In countries with a rapidly advancing aging population such as Japan and Singapore, this demographic segment would need targeted communication in their native dialects to educate them. 

I spoke to Dr. Anuradha Rao, a Singapore based Digital Literacy Expert and a PhD in Communications and New Media, from the National University of Singapore via an email interview on building capacity in this much needed field. When I asked her on how to train staff in the IT sector on Digital Literacy in India, she said:

…. companies, including those in the IT sector, can partner with organisations that conduct digital literacy (DL) programmes, such as CyberCognizanz. Trainings and workshops could form part of their CSR or skill building/professional development initiatives. DL is a concept covering a vast number of topics, and professionals, especially those using new technologies and social media extensively, would benefit from regular awareness and training workshops on topics such as ethical and effective online communication, how to protect yourself from fake news, and cyber-safety, among others.

As we move towards resilience rather than a knee jerk reaction, Information Literacy is a moving target as technology and it’s juxtaposition with societal contours evolve daily. The COVID-19 pandemic is a genuine inflection point for society as we start thinking of the global commons afresh and move beyond the pettiness of politics and reinstate a respect for science and evidence once again. 

Manishankar Prasad

Manishankar Prasad is an environmental engineer, sociologist, researcher and writer. He has studied at the National University of Singapore and Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. He has published across numerous national and international platforms such as the New Indian Express and the Huffington Post, been a panellist on Al Jazeera International and BBC World, and has been interviewed by Forbes and The Guardian.

The views and opinions expressed in the article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Tilak Chronicle and TTC Media Pvt Ltd.

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