Research & Studies

From ‘infodemic’ to the need for global information and knowledge governance by László Z. Karvalics

Necessity and outlines of a new (Information) World Order by László Z. Karvalics

We have got to identify general patterns behind the dysfunctions of our information flow, concerning the disease. But “infodemic’ is not (only) about the shortages of current management of information, combined with the mediated multichannel misinformation machinery. It is the sign, that our information ecosystem shows pathological mutations, weakening its power to take the bull by the horns. However, we should realize, that the shortcomings of our information immune systems are consequences of the increasing crisis of elites, in the trap of “business as usual” political and economic rules and structures. But their growing inadequacy in the deep of an unstoppable world system transition is principally a sign of an overall control crisis. Deglobalization is not the answer: shaping effective global information and knowledge governance framework and practice is a better chance to safeguard our adaptability to create a new control balance and overcome future challenges.

In the Technical Focus section of WHO’s Novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV) Situation Report (No.13, February 2.,2020 edition) a new type of risk was explained: the challenge of managing the 2019-nCoV massive ‘infodemic’.

Infodemic = Information + pandemic. In this Report the snappy portmanteau refers to the “over-abundance of information – some accurate and some not – that makes it hard for people to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance when they need it.” The proposed answer of WHO is providing timely and evidence-based information, identifying “the most prevalent rumors that can potentially harm the public’s health, such as false prevention measures or cures”, spreading the myth-busters through official and social media channels.

Infodemic, the expression became immediately popular in this special, narrow, meaning, concerning individual information consumption: obstacles to find relevant virus-related content, the growing danger of getting false media information. But the information landscape of virus defense is out and away from the complex. A macro community is fighting for the survival of its members, and not only our biochemical-medical power but our information tools are also essential weapons in this war. There are a lot of other and far more important information frontlines beyond infodemic. Creating and maintaining state-of-art, multichannel information services, and databases to support the knowledge exchange and production: to understand the nature of the enemy, to hybridize the existing and new knowledge, and apply them to support immediate actions. Abundance? The research community feels the lack of peer reviewers to evaluate the freshly (pre)published research results to be able to feed decision support systems with them. There is an innovation rush to develop cheap and trustworthy testing instruments, vaccines, medicine, situation-sensitive protocols, the most effective communication strategies to coordinate the behavior of isolated families and individuals. To follow and document every relevant event. Support early detection methods and early warning routines.

Infodemic, from this perspective, is just a simple continuation of the fake news discourse and the post-truth narrative, following the Brexit-debate and the American presidential election.

However, 17 years ago, infodemic was coined in a 2003 March Washington Post article of David J. Rothkopf, during the previous (SARS) pandemic in a broader way, as a complex phenomenon caused by the interaction of mainstream media, specialist media, and internet sites; and “informal” media, which is to say wireless phones, text messaging, pagers, faxes, and e-mail, all transmitting some combination of fact, rumor, interpretation, and propaganda”. The virus threat gave a handle for Rothkopf to identify a general danger: the disfunction of our whole information metabolism. “A few facts, mixed with fear, speculation, and rumor, amplified and relayed swiftly worldwide by modern information technologies, have affected national and international economies, politics and even security in ways that are utterly disproportionate with the root realities”. The result? The distorted representation of reality, which leads to inadequate actions. Information itself behaves like a virus.

Infodemic = pathological spread of misinformation, weakening the ability to manage effective actions. “Infodemics are emerging as one of the most virulent phenomena known to man, able to transit continents instantly. In virtually every respect they behave just like any other disease, with epidemiology all their own, identifiable symptoms, well-known carriers, even straightforward cures.”

These findings were formulated in the age of pagers and faxes, before the social media era and the smartphone revolution. Rothkopf’s other main example was the case of terrorism and even relatively minor occurrences such as shark sightings. “These Internet- or media-borne viruses create global panics, trigger irrational behavior, blur our vision of important underlying problems, strain our infrastructure, buffet markets and undermine governments”.

He thought that time, that “individuals, companies and entire countries can acquire some natural immunity to infodemics by cultivating credibility… Yet if the information is the disease, knowledge is also a cure. We should react to infodemics just as we do to diseases. Understand how these ideas are introduced into the population, how they spread, what accelerates their spread, what their consequences are, and what localized outbreaks may be contained … It means effectively managing each outbreak and presenting the facts fully and quickly to critical audiences”.

Rothkopf was mistaken. We see the same side-roads, problems, and the same “information business as usual” practices by the governments. The infodemic storm in 2003 was started by Chinese authorities, detaining four citizens for “spreading rumors” about SARS, and the same happened in December 2019, when Dr. Li Wenliang, a 34-year-old opthalmologist, the author of the first public warning post was persecuted by police” because  “disrupting social order”. And we can find all the fake cures, disinformation and misinformation cloud, including colorful conspiracy theories. Interpretation turmoils and contradictions, decision discrepancies, solicitous communication practices.

It is easy to see the reason behind the infodemic similarities. It is not about ill-tuned information policies, ineffective information management competencies or poisoned media ethics. The shortcomings of our information immune systems are consequences of the increasing crisis of elites, in the trap of contemporary political and economic rules and structures. In Eric Toussaint’s view “The Coronavirus pandemic is part of a multidimensional crisis of capitalism”. Christian Fuchs is talking about „Coronavirus Capitalism”. I am convinced that in pursuance of the sociocultural diagnosis it is not enough to simply show off “capitalism” as a primary cause of social disease. The growing inadequacy is a sign of an overall control crisis. The unstoppable world system transition itself is an unprecedented social macroevolutionary crossroad. The coordination, control and command functions should be translocated into the higher level of the system to cope with the system-level environmental challenges and changes. But how to modulate minds and structures, rooted deeply into the previous control mechanisms, system-consciousness, and interest-bounded insistence safekeeping their long-ago (quondam) autonomy? Deglobalization would be not else than a retrogression. It is time to start to shape effective global information and knowledge governance framework and practice – not only to upgrade the system-level crisis response-ability, but to begin providing professional support to a concerted multistakeholder adaptation acting upon the inevitable system transition.