Misinformation and disasters go side by side. Disasters create uncertainty, uncertainly causes anxiety, anxiety leads to collective sensemaking, which in turn creates rumors. There is nothing new to this, it is just natural human response. Now, the bigger the disaster, the larger the misinformation. Add social media to the equation, and you now have an earth-size petri dish of misinformation with a growth rate that can put the Escherichia coli bacterium, which can double every 20 minutes, to shame. We cannot take this lightly, especially with a pandemic in hand that has infected more than half a million people worldwide and has left billions around the world worried and scared.
As of March 28th, 2020, 571,659 COVID-19 infections have been confirmed worldwide, 26,493 of which have resulted in death. Countries that have confirmed novel coronavirus infections are shown in the Coronavirus Outbreak world map below (note that this map will be updated as new data becomes available). Also shown below is the Confirmed Cases Timeline visualization that shows the increase in COVID-19 infections over time (note that this visualization will also be updated as new data becomes available).
The population of the world in 2019 was 7.71 billion, as stated in the Population world map below that shows the population of various countries. Now 7.71 billion is a big number - a billion, after all, has nine zeros. So, it is natural to think that sharing “that message” from your friend which came with a “share this message with 5 of your friends” is going to have very limited exposure. After all, what is 7 (the person who send this to you, you and the 5 others you plan to share it with) in 7.71 billion? If you do the math, it is around 0.00000009%. But, don’t let that tiny percentage sway you away from this discussion as this is only the tip of the iceberg when you take a few things into account. Let us assume this message from your friend is about something that has global interest. Let us also assume that your friend had shared this message not only with you but also with 4 other friends. Now, if these 5 individuals (including you) share this message with 5 other unique individuals each, and then those 25 individuals share it with 5 other unique individuals each, and hence forth, the progression of the spread of this message will be like this: 1, 6, 31, 156, 781, 3906, 19531, 97656, 488281, 2441406, 12207031, 61035156, 305175781, 1525878906, 7629394531 (which is very close to the world population!). Now, if it takes 1 minute for each individual to share this message, this message can technically be shared across pretty much everyone in the world in 14 minutes! This example is illustrated in the Share-with-Five Timeline visualization shown below. Granted not everyone with read or share this message in this timeframe or even care to read or share it, this example shows the true power of social media and why everyone needs to be responsible for the content they share.
Just like governments across the world are taking preventive measures to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus, social media companies are trying their best to prevent the spread of coronavirus misinformation. But just like flattening the curve of COVID-19 infections ultimately depends on each one of us, stopping misinformation related to this also ultimately depends on us. During this pandemic, when we are all being socially responsible and following guidelines and recommendations from governments and health agencies to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus, we should also be social media responsible and stop sharing misinformation about the virus. So yes, break the chain - both real and virtual!
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