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[Digital Simplicity] ‘Infodemic’ is as lethal as coronavirus



About three weeks ago, I watched a news segment online showing Japanese shoppers rushing to buy toilet paper. Shelves were stripped bare quickly across Japan. The reason for the panic buying was allegedly linked to the fatal coronavirus pandemic.

A sense of urgency hit my brain. Wait, what if I run out of precious toilet paper at home? If an emergency happens in relation to my bodily functions, should I hail a taxi and speed through the now eerily quiet Seoul streets to go to the office where I have set two boxes of tissues on my desk? Of course, regular tissues are no match for trusty toilet paper in terms of convenience and connectivity. But, come on, it’s an emergency!

The real reason for the panic buying of toilet paper in Japan was fake news. A false news item spread like wildfire that Japan imports the crucial materials for toilet paper mainly from China, and since China is hamstrung by the massive coronavirus outbreak, the inventory of toilet paper in Japan would be gone pretty soon.

The news, though entirely fabricated, came off as authentic for many Japanese citizens, who were deeply concerned about what lay ahead for their behinds as the coronavirus spreads.

As the outbreak turned into a pandemic and hit other countries in the following weeks, strangely enough, shoppers across the world are stocking up on toilet paper. South Koreans have defied the global trend, at least thus far.

A restroom without toilet paper is indeed a disaster. Just imagine for a moment that you are sitting on a toilet inside a lonely, closed space, with only a shiny mobile phone in your hands. (Don’t even think about sacrificing your mobile phone!) Even though one could always find alternatives such as newspapers, nothing can beat soft toilet paper.

Anyway, I got curious about why and how fake news is so effective and prevalent in times of crisis. The culprit lies in our natural instincts as humans. We are in dire need of a sense of safety and security when a pandemic engulfs the world, so falsehoods are easily incubated and a torrent of fake news disguised as “superior solutions to treat and cure coronavirus” spreads among the unsuspecting public.

A prime yet tragic case of such an infodemic is the incident that recently took place at the Grace Community Church in Seongnam, near Seoul. The church emerged as a new cluster of COVID-19, with 46 people confirmed to have caught the virus there. It turned out that members of the congregation were sprayed with saltwater one-by-one, falsely believing that it was effective in preventing the spread of the coronavirus.

Misinformation concerning health and virus often results in lethal developments. On KakaoTalk, I got a host of kind-hearted yet utterly strange tips, suggesting, for instance, that drinking a cup of hot water was tremendously effective in preventing the coronavirus infection. One message, pretending to be based on scientific evidence, claims that the major symptom of COVID-19 is pneumonia, so drinking a cup of hot water, at an interval of 15 minutes, is a fabulous way to stay healthy and virus-free. Amazing tip, whose falsehood is in par with all the laughable lies spitted by US President Donald Trump.

Earlier, when asked whether there were worries about a pandemic, Trump famously said: “We have it totally under control.” Thanks to Trump’s “decisive” leadership, confirmed cases in the US surged to 9,436 as of Thursday. He even made a prophesy: “It’s going to disappear. One day -- it’s like a miracle -- it will disappear.”

Hopefully, yes, it will eventually disappear, but nobody knows.

Throwing in another memorable remark this week, Trump proudly and shamelessly said, “I felt it was a pandemic long before it was called a pandemic.”

But we should give some credit to Trump, since his self-delusional lies are too apparent to miss. One should bear in mind that there is no shortage of more subtle, hard-to-discern misinformation sparking a fresh infodemic, particularly those conjured up by self-styled experts.

Another interesting case to ponder: masks. Should we wear protective face mask to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus? Of course we should. In the newsroom where I work, everybody wears a mask, all day long. If you don’t have a mask, you are not allowed to enter the building in the first place. But some “experts” say that “only those who are sick, or their caregivers, should wear masks.”

Not wearing a mask and partying in a crowded space since you believe you’re healthy enough is as stupid as panic-buying rolls of toilet paper, the very symbol of “preparedness and safety” when the pandemic hits everybody -- healthy or not.

By Yang Sung-jin (insight@heraldcorp.com)  

Yang Sung-jin is the multimedia editor of The Korea Herald. -- Ed.
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