Need an expert? COVID-19: information overload and sense of panic

Posted on Wednesday, March 11, 2020

 wear a mask, no handshake and a tower of toilet paper rolls

Members of the media may directly contact the following expert:

Luc Bonneville (French only)
Full Professor, Department of Communication. Researcher, Institut du Savoir Montfort

Is the overabundance of information about the coronavirus contributing to (and fuelling) panic among the population? What is the role of individual citizens?

“The overabundance of information is leading some media to seek out the most powerful headlines that can grab the quickest attention from the greatest number of people,” says Professor Bonneville. “Think of the words, images, graphics, etc. that are used to talk, show, stage the coronavirus.”

“Social media, blogs and other digital platforms are not to be outdone. They disseminate information on the fringe of traditional communication channels. And that's probably the whole problem: there's an overabundance of "news" circulating in the public space and peddling all sorts of data and "facts" that are not always verified and validated or whose interpretation is not always rigorous. Emotions are also conveyed, often with a much greater force than objectively reported facts.”

“There are also many popular beliefs circulating about the origin of the coronavirus. Conspiracy theories abound. Fear campaigns are even skillfully staged with images that strike the imagination, such as those we have seen circulating online: corpses littering the ground in China, airports under siege, grocery shelves completely empty, hospitals filled to capacity, quarantines where people are undignifiedly confined, and so on. It is this "information" that circulates in abundance online that I believe is the most dangerous, the most likely to fuel the panic that we tend to see everywhere.”

“I think that every citizen has a role to play in the way he or she appropriates information and especially in the way he or she relays it or not in social networks. Before relaying certain information with a simple "click", specialists will recommend, among other things, identifying sources, trying to read the entire article and not just the headlines, checking the status of experts who are cited or not, etc. And, above all, be wary of our own prejudices. Do not fall into the trap of systematically relaying everything you read and see online. We are all, in a way, responsible for the fear that we can fuel in others.”

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