Distrust of anything mainstream has become the preoccupation of some groups. They believe that whatever is associated with the establishment, should be viewed with suspicion no matter how beneficial it may be to the majority.
We have observed in the United States, for example, anti-government organisations have raised millions of dollars off the backs of many poorly educated citizens, whom they have convinced to financially support dubious causes.
It was groups like these that helped to generate anger over the 2020 presidential election in the US, while others are very much involved in the anti-COVID vaccine propaganda that has made its way around the world
The Southern Poverty Law Centre (SPLC) revealed in April that extremist ideologies and conspiracy theories were not going away anytime soon.
The watchdog group revealed that these groups exploited new digital technologies to create a broader, more decentralised movement – one that is web-based in its infrastructure, that is helping their leaders raise millions of dollars to fund their activities.
Social media has become such fertile ground for misinformation, that it has become extremely difficult for ordinary citizens to determine what is authentic and what is fake and produced with the sole intention of undermining and creating confusion.
According to the SPLC, “Even when mainstream social media companies block extremists from using their services, the decentralised technology landscape too often fills the gap.”
As a result, tackling misinformation of any kind in 2021 has become even more challenging. The popular YouTube platform has, for example, introduced a number of strategies, including account time-outs, removal of chat features and disallowing “bad actors” from taking donations or profiting from advertising revenue.
However, some newer, smaller companies have stepped into the breach, providing alternative avenues to peddle information that creates disquiet in the society.
This issue of the fight for dominance in the global information market has exploded during the COVID-19 pandemic. Millions of people have been forced into predominantly online activity, and so a ready, accessible market has been created by people who are spending many more hours on their computers and smartphones.
In the face of this situation, the role of the traditional media has been placed under intense scrutiny. Viewers and readers of online content must closely examine what information they are absorbing.
The amount of misinformation that is being released about the COVID-19 pandemic has been a major headache for those on the frontlines of the fight against the disease.
Some of the early misinformation was peddled by no less than international heads of state including former United States president Donald Trump, and Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro.
Ironically, those two countries have had some of the highest rates of infections and deaths from the disease.
Followers of the two politicians still hold fast to the ideas spouted by them which downplayed the effects of the illness. Though each leader caught the disease, they benefited from some of the most expensive COVID-19 treatment, not readily available at the time to ordinary citizens of the two countries.
We in Barbados are also in a battle for the hearts and minds of citizens, tens of thousands of whom are mulling accepting the vaccines, mainly because people are overwhelmed by the volume of information about the disease, the available treatments, as well as the vaccines.
So strong has been the lobby against use of COVID-19 vaccines, the Mottley administration has admitted that a position will have to be developed on the issue if Barbadians want to have their economy resuscitated and insulated from another crippling shutdown.
Employers are pushing Government for legislative support for the testing of employees and the matter will be addressed frontally at the next meeting of the Social Partnership set for Tuesday.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) too has accepted that misinformation on COVID-19 has become so pervasive that it represents a major threat to the global fight against the disease.
To try to control what WHO described as “the COVID-19 infodemic”, the global body teamed with the United Kingdom government to create and distribute content to combat the spread of misinformation through a series of communication campaigns.
Called Stop the Spread, the campaign was among several initiatives in the information fight.
What has been most interesting is that the majority of online misinformation and conspiracy theories about the pandemic and coronavirus vaccines originated with just 12 accounts.
Dubbed the “disinformation dozen” by the Centre for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH), the organisation named Robert F. Kennedy Jr. — nephew of former United States president John F. Kennedy — and Joseph Mercola, a well-known “anti-vaxxer”, among the 12.
The CCDH said those 12 influencers “do not have relevant medical expertise and have their own pockets to line,” while spreading misinformation about vaccine safety, as well as downplaying the danger of the pandemic.
For our government, it will be an uphill battle confronting the misinformation that has become entrenched. When our economy and the livelihoods of citizens are on the line, we expect firm decisions will be taken.