Coronavirus: Misinformation remains a pressing matter – but there is one solution

Only gold-standard media operations can expose and dispel industrial-scale myths and manipulations

LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM - APRIL 10: A woman walks her dog in-front of graffiti saying 'Stop 5G' on April 10, 2020 in London, England. Public Easter events have been cancelled across the country, with the government urging the public to respect lockdown measures by celebrating the holiday in their homes. Over 1.5 million people across the world have been infected with the COVID-19 coronavirus, with over 7,000 fatalities recorded in the United Kingdom.   (Photo by Justin Setterfield/Getty Images)
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It must have been spectacular. The fire crew called to the scene near Birmingham’s Bluebell Park was forced to park up and wait for 40 minutes just after midnight on Saturday as the blaze consumed the mobile phone mast. The electronic panels fizzed and sparked as the flames went higher.

The cause of the blaze was arson, and the attack was driven by one of the most persistent Covid-19-related conspiracies. Fed by social media, people have come to believe that installation of the next-generation telecommunications infrastructure is transmitting the novel coronavirus.

It is not 5G that is bringing the curse of our times. It is the prevalence of the lies and rumours powered by social media messaging.

This is an object lesson in the scale of the damage that can be done by fabricated claims.

A cellphone tower, used for 5G network, is seen on a street in Beijing on April 7, 2020. / AFP / NICOLAS ASFOURI

In such a scenario, only gold-standard media operations can expose and dispel industrial-scale myths and manipulations. During a health crisis, it is clear that the right messaging must be responsibly delivered. If that tight focus is made impossible, people will die.

The pandemic represents the greatest challenge for media operations in several generations. Economic contraction has inflicted a terrible toll. Reliance on an advertising model to provide revenue compounds the general problems. Advertisers are using blocking tools to prevent their adverts appearing alongside stories on the coronavirus. This is further slashing revenues.

It is also antithetical to the common good.

Without the media, people will not stay at home in sufficient numbers. And even if they do, they will not properly understand if they are doing the right things in the correct manner.

A British government minister, who has oversight of the sector, was not far wrong when he described the press as the nation’s fourth emergency service. This is a twist on the long-argued concept that the media serves as a fourth estate in the affairs of a nation. News represents an active pillar of public life. It serves to ensure the good functioning of the other parts of the constitutional settlement.

Members of the media wearing protective face masks broadcast from outside St Thomas' Hospital, operated by Guy's and St Thomas' NHS Foundation Trust, where U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson is being cared for in intensive care after struggling to shake off covid-19, in London, U.K., on Tuesday, April 7, 2020. The U.K. is facing a leadership crisis as it heads into the peak of the coronavirus pandemic, with Johnson in intensive care and his government under pressure to get a grip on the outbreak. Photographer: Hollie Adams/Bloomberg

Absent the media to report, the vacuum gets filled up. The attacks on the 5G towers would be unchallenged. The sources of the campaign could remain hidden. The science that debunks the claims would not see the light of day.

The public would be left vulnerable to the consequences of distorted information, and the proponents of the conspiracy theory would keep recycling their myth. On Monday, the groups behind the 5G incident are intent on staging an “uprising” against 5G on Facebook.

There is nothing amusing about where this activity leads. The burning down of mobile phone masts means that there is less capacity for emergency services. It endangers the lives of the vulnerable. It means that when people are trapped in their homes, they could loose communications links vital for their jobs or as a diversion from the boredom.

FILE PHOTO: Silhouettes of laptop and mobile device users are seen next to a screen projection of Whatsapp logo in this picture illustration taken March 28, 2018.  REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration/File Photo
The burning down of mobile phone masts means that there is less capacity for emergency services. It endangers the lives of the vulnerable. It means that when people are trapped in their homes, they could loose communications links

There are myriad falsehoods surrounding the Covid-19 pandemic, and the rapid disavowal of false narratives has become a first priority challenge. The few months since the pandemic was declared has illustrated how the public sphere can be overwhelmed by malign forces.

There are many messages about bogus vaccines or untested treatment being shared on WhatsApp and other platforms. These range from comical theories about eating your own weight in garlic – I may have made that up – to potentially hazardous drug cocktails.

Some states have sponsored the false material and thrown their own resources behind it. Iran, for instance, has claimed that the US military brought the virus to the country.

This is a new phenomenon that is compounding an old problem. Plagues and pandemics have spurred conspiracies and wild theories for centuries. Frequently, these have targeted foreigners as carriers of the pestilence.

Nations need a strong media brand to project to the outside world their own lessons and leadership in a crisis.

For instance, the UAE took an early decision to roll out testing for coronavirus. The hundreds of thousands of tests since have helped to contain the outbreak. Good systems were put in place that could be emulated elsewhere, such as the QR-code system for retrieving results of tests taken at the airports.

Setting the standard for testing can be a point of pride when the word gets out. Credible media coverage projects the benefits of putting in place those strong systems far and wide, and can assist other countries.

Alternative approaches have not worked, and it was the detail exposed through scrutiny from a strong press that led to U-turns from officials. Countries such as Britain sought to maintain daily life for as long as possible before locking down to contain the pressure on their health services.

Good journalism not only saves lives, it is a safeguard for society.

Damien McElroy is the London bureau chief of The National