Life During an Infodemic: A Photo Essay

We were accustomed to metaphors of contagion for describing information flow, but today, we confront a pandemic compounded by an infodemic—false and misleading information—that, in this case, makes a deadly disease even worse. Messages going “viral” mean more exposure, hits, views, and eventually, perhaps, fame and fortune. But the free and unregulated flow of information can be dangerous, just like unregulated bodily contact. We know that caste and class segregation regulates body contact. The pandemic not only deepens such segregation but becomes a matrix for multiplying the effects of bias. Mental blocks, prejudice and social indifference sanctioned by caste, creed and class, can multiply with suitable stimuli. We can observe these tendencies at work at this time in working-class localities in Mumbai.

Image Courtesy: Ishad

Image Courtesy: Simpreet

Image Courtesy: Siraj

Image Courtesy: Siraj

As a social worker, I have many friends living in crowded localities that have become COVID-19 hotspots. I asked them how they are managing their media use. Everyone is aware that fake news is circulating all around them. However, it is poignant to see how ineffective they are in responding to it, because they assume that false news is the outlier and that the majority of information “must be true or it would not be allowed.” For the pandemic, there is testing, and perhaps in time, there will be antiviral treatment too. For the infodemic, however, there seems to be no cure, at least for now.  

The mobile phone has become more important, as everyone can attest. People are spending more time on it, and it is becoming the sole point of accessing both information and services, although many regard newspapers and television as more trustworthy.  

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Image Courtesy: Jyoti Sathe

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Sheetal, a first-year BA student admits: “Being on phone has become the main activity. Watching TV at home means fighting. It’s rare that everyone wants the same program. On the mobile phone, there is no tension, each can watch what they want.” Time spent on the phone has gone up by three to six times, for her and many others.

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That also means there is a lot more fake news to wade through. We can distinguish a few types. The first kind includes rumours about the ways to protect oneself from COVID-19. The second are phishing messages offering links to avail free internet packs or a free subscription to Netflix. The third are messages intended to spread hate and to target a specific community, with accusations of spreading COVID-19. 

Jyoti, a community worker, told me that a few days ago,  a woman from her neighbourhood came around saying that if people tie masalas in a white cloth and place it on their body, they can avoid the coronavirus. When asked about where she got to know about this, she said it was through a message on her phone. 

Munis, a bachelors in Information Technology student, mentioned an offensive WhatsApp message posted by a Hindu friend in response to the call by the Prime Minister about standing in the balcony and lighting candles. The friend had posted: “Agar hum ek din mein 100 crore diye jala sakte hain toh 20 crore diye bujha bhi sakte hain” [If we can light 100 crore lamps one day, we can also extinguish 20 crores]. When Munis asked his friend about why such a message was shared, the friend replied: “I posted it because I felt it was right!” 

Ashok, a senior secondary school student, remarked, “I have many friends and neighbours who are Muslims. I have not talked to them yet, but I’m sure they must be feeling so bad about [the targeting of Muslims following the news about Tablighi Jamaat].” Like others, however, he rated credibility according to the volume of information and the diversity of sources.  “Since so many news channels covered this and so many times, maybe there was some truth in it,” he said. 

The television is often treated as a filter to judge whether the news is fake or not. “So many people watch the channel, they just can’t show wrong news,” Ashok reasoned. “If they show anything wrong the government will take action. They can’t be telling lies to so many people.” Kaushalya, a mass media student, relies on print news when video sources provide differing accounts: “Since print has a longer history, it is more reliable. Video is recent. One can be easily fooled by it.”  As far as the lockdown is concerned, she trusts the government. “They know what is good for us or not. We have to follow the directions of the leader.”

Image Courtesy: Kajal

Vishal, another high school student, points out that news channels are not covering issues that the poor are facing: “Everyone is saying wash your hands regularly, but we in slums anyway had limited access to water. I have not seen a single news channel saying that people do not have access to water, let’s give them water too.”

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Munis also noted that social distancing cannot work for everyone. “Yahan toh karkhana hi ghar hai, usme bhi 10-10 log, distancing kaise hoga?” [Here, the workplace and the home are the same, and there are 10 people in each space. How can we distance ourselves from anyone?] 

Image Courtesy: Siraj

Image Courtesy: Namita

If there is a bright side, it is the trial by fire people are experiencing, in social media exchanges with strangers. People are also learning to detach the experience of a conversation from social contact, to take each one on its own terms. There are the boys who are fishing for a date, which during a pandemic, is unlikely. But chatting is fun, as Priya, a college student, remarked: “Logon se baat karke maaza aata hein, yeh sab pehle karna mushkil tha, kisi anjaan ladke se baat karna lekin.” [It is fun to talk to people. Earlier, it was not easy to speak to boys I did not know.]