Utku Perktaş

Dr. Utku Perktaş is a professor of biogeography in the Biology Department at Hacettepe University.

Photo: Pixabay

The first, unrivaled item on the global agenda during the past six months has been the coronavirus. It still has not lost this first place. There’s nobody left in the world who doesn’t know the meaning of the word pandemic. Before finding a treatment for the disease, we had to learn how to deal with the pandemic. We tried to quickly implement the measures. Although we can say that, nowadays, we’ve somewhat managed to control the spread, at first, it didn’t go so well. Information that is wrong, inadequate, and of low-reliability built a wall that is was to surpass before trying to get things done. In fact, this wall is not only in the process of fighting against the outbreak but it is ever-present at every moment where it’s necessary to reach for the correct information. We even came to the point where the WHO has set a name for it, deriving from pandemic: the infodemic.

Our new experts, eager to offer their opinions on every popular topic show up everywhere. And, of course, the numerous channels of the internet exposes us to a more profuse information flow than ever before. This raw information dough is presented to us pre-cooking and kneading as quickly as possible. Regardless of its content. Some of us consider this a mere annoyance. However, other groups approach this situation with greater seriousness and consider it the steps to our upcoming disaster.

But what about the political messages given during this race to understand the outbreak? What about the TV programs made by irresponsible journalists for sensationalist purposes, or the viral social media messages? We are in the middle of chaos, almost a second outbreak. The concept of infodemic, which the World Health Organization derived from the abbreviation of the word “information” in English, comes to life in this environment.

From the protective gene to tripe soup

For example, there were TV “specialists” for some time who claimed that the virus did not affect the “Turkish genes” before the disease was officially announced to be in Turkey. Is that really so? Didn’t the virus affect the Turks? Take a look at the statistics. As of today, we are in the top 10 in terms of the total number of cases. Another popular message was that Turks’ traditional tripe soup was good for fighting the virus. Did it have a scientific basis? But the result has not changed. While programs of all kinds of specialists broke rating records, we witnessed strange, unrealistic populist statements that belittled the epidemic. Perhaps the situation would have developed differently if this raw information pulp had not been presented to us.

Is it as dangerous as a virus?

Now let’s approach the issue from a different perspective, remembering the conspiracy theories. Many people from different backgrounds, especially US President Trump, have produced theories about China. Saying, for example, the coronavirus was developed in a Chinese laboratory. Suddenly climate change, the unbridled increase in the human population, the stiffness of biodiversity were put aside, and a significant majority preferred to believe in this idea. So we started playing three monkeys together in the face of real problems. Another theory came from people accusing 5G towers on the grounds that they spread the disease, and the issue of public health moved to a completely different dimension. While the sweet feeling of thinking about all these theories, unfortunately, causes an unnecessary waste of time, the danger we have experienced has also increased; that’s also a definition for the concept of infodemic.

What’s going on in the academic front?

Dozens of studies have been published since the start of the outbreak. The world of research is on the move in a way that’ s unprecedented. This was perhaps one of the most correct steps taken against the outbreak. However, as a result of the desire to spread the knowledge produced in the academic field rapidly in recent years, free open services that published research articles have entered our lives. Thus, an alternative system was created for academic publishing. But was the information presented here passed through the traditional peer review filter? This question has a clear answer: No!

The researchers who completed the project started to quickly share their results through these free-access servers. This seems like a unique opportunity for the critical period we were in at first, right? But as a result, when we need quality data and trustworthy information, we are left with a huge stack of information that requires us to extract what’s right. It turns into a kind of academic infodemic. The worst thing is, attempting to produce solutions based on the knowledge that has not undergone academic evaluation during the times when we need fast solutions, unfortunately brings along irreversible results.

Jonathan Kimmelman from McGill University in Canada said that “Under the conditions of the crisis, insufficient information can be worse than no information”. I think he says it very well, and it is completely right. That’s why, we have to be conscious about infodemic as well as pandemic especially these days.