From pandemic to infodemic – has misinformation become a public health issue in Singapore?By Chong Yang Chan
Over the past 12 months, we have come up against two public health crises. The first, a global pandemic. The second, misinformation that has run rampant in Singapore of late, amid the rise of COVID-19 cases and several clusters that have recently come to light.
Think this sounds overdramatic? Just a few weeks ago, a group of 12 doctors in Singapore penned an open letter urging parents with children aged between 11 and 15 to rethink their need for vaccination. They highlighted concerns of children receiving mRNA COVID-19 vaccines like Pfizer-BioNTech and its potential long term side effects. While 11 out of 12 of these doctors have since retracted the statement and Singapore's expert committee on COVID-19 vaccination have clarified that the vaccine is safe for this age group, the facts, it would appear, have not changed people’s opinions. A sizable number of Singaporeans remain sceptical of the benefits of getting vaccinated, despite the government’s push for half of the population to be fully vaccinated by this August.
Fake news or misinformation is not a new trend. For years, the media has been hounding Big Tech to take more responsibility for staunching the spread of misinformation on social platforms. Now, we are witnessing the dangerous consequences of it as we deal with the pandemic and an ‘infodemic’.
The fight against misinformation has gone up a notch.
How can we defend ourselves?
There is currently no legislation or technology that can stop misinformation before it spreads. But there are ways to combat misinformation, and they require input from all of us. We can no longer sit back and put the onus of sole responsibility on policymakers and industry leaders. Instead, we need to look at the role that we play in disseminating misinformation and how we can arm ourselves with the tools to protect ourselves and others around us.
Just as we take responsibility to maintain our health and wellbeing when it comes to smoking, drug abuse, or obesity, we need to start taking more responsibility for the impact of misinformation on our health and the health of others.
Let us consider what misinformation or fake news is and what it does. Misinformation is the manipulation of information, of data. It corrupts the facts we use to understand the world around us. It exacerbates social divides and hinders our ability to make the best decisions for our families, businesses, and communities.
We need to start thinking about how we can apply the same skills that help people understand and use data effectively to the issues of misinformation. Individuals should interrogate information in the same way they review data when at work.
The key is working directly with individuals, businesses, and the wider community to help restore the integrity of information. Not everyone needs to become a data scientist; we just need to empower them to understand data in context. This starts by recognising the need to advance data literacy at all levels, from the classroom through early childhood education to the workplace by equipping employees with the right tools and training programs to read, analyse and communicate with data to form accurate, meaningful, and actionable insights. With more practice comes more accurate data reporting and more confidence in identifying misinformation.
Encouragingly, research shows that there is a desire to upskill their data skills to make a positive difference. Closer to home, 4 in 5 Singaporean employees (82 per cent) are willing to invest more time and energy in improving their data skills to make better decisions. We need to leverage this and provide them access to tools that helps them to question and challenge the information they are given, seek the truth behind a story, and support others when misinformation takes hold.
From a community perspective, we are no longer suffering from having a “baseline reality”. We are operating in competing realities that have created deep rifts in global communities. Chinese medical company, Sinovac, for example, has been subject to several misleading narratives across online media and social channels on the efficacy of its COVID-19 vaccine shot.
In the open letter example in Singapore mentioned earlier, the group of 12 doctors promoted the Sinovac vaccine for everyone, including children, citing that it could protect against B1617 variants. But in other accounts, scattered reports in the media sent countries across the world into a tailspin. A handful of unsubstantiated reports alleging that the Sinovac vaccine led to the death of a participant in a local trial that disrupted the global vaccine rollout; some paused, some continued as before, and others ceased using it altogether.
Misinformation and disinformation weaken the bonds we build in our communities, so its high time we start making sense of and communicating complex information to help restore these bonds.
Become information empowered
If there is one thing to take away from this, it is that the ability to silence misinformation is about personal empowerment. Businesses and the government need to set an example by giving people, and the communities that they live in, the tools so that they can see misinformation and know how to respond; to challenge such instances in a positive and constructive way.
In the age of an infodemic, our health depends on it.