The Covid-19 situation, and the amount of information (and misinformation and disinformation) that has accompanied it, has created a new public interest in overload. We were intrigued to learn, via our university media team, that one of our very old papers had been mentioned by a Far East news source, and we were asked to give a update for the university news service.
Our main points were the COVID-19 situation has been accompanied by a relentless flood of information, as is evident from a quick examination of newspaper front pages, top stories on any news channel, or trending topics on Twitter. There is evidence that this has led to overload, when too much relevant information is arriving, which makes it difficult to distinguish which information is reliable and helpful. There are many anecdotal accounts of people spending so much time checking news and social media for updates about Covid-19 that they are too tired and distracted to take any positive action. Overload leads people to feel overwhelmed and powerless, and causes anxiety, fatigue, and paralysis of action; bad enough at any time, dangerous in a pandemic. In response, people seek simple, and often unhelpful, ways of choosing which information to focus on; even to the extent of just avoiding information completely. We know we should use reliable sources – the health services, the government, academic sources such as John Hopkins University’s coronavirus dashboard – but it often easier to rely on our social media bubbles. Worse, faced with such a stream of information there is a tendency to pick out the bizarre and sensational; reading that the coronavirus was genetically engineering by the Illuminati secret society as a means of world domination, but that it can be defeated by drinking hot water, is somehow more attractive than seeing more sensible reminders about staying in and handwashing. Our views were put forward on the news section of the City University website, and picked up by the Science X and News Medical news sites.
We were then contacted by a BBC journalist, who was writing a piece on how lay people could help deal with corona virus issues, and interested particularly in how we thought reliable information could best be shared, and overload avoided. We suggested that the most important thing is not to share automatically, without a real reason to do so. Only share if you think it’s useful to the people you’re sending it to; and if there is such a reason it needs a comment. Never share a link you haven’t read, or a video you haven’t seen. Ideally, don’t share anything that doesn’t come directly from a source you trust. To avoid sharing misinformation, don’t share anything that you are not confident is correct; you have to trust the source before you share it. Don’t share things because they’re shocking or emotional. If you are receiving what you think is misinformation, don’t share it, even to say you think it’s wrong. If you think you family and friends are taking action on misinformation, try to dissuade them; otherwise it’s best ignored. Some of these points appeared in the article on the BBC website.
None of this is terribly novel, and it’s a shame that it took a pandemic to get the new media interested in issues of overload. Nice to be able to get the message out, even so.