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Coronavirus diary Part 30

By Sylvester Odion Akhaine
28 October 2020   |   2:32 am
This installment addresses the question of COVID-19 and responsible Information management. I was egged on in this direction by the Centre for Information, Press and Public Relations...

A patient who is suspected of suffering from COVID-19 coronavirus undergoes testing at the University of Maiduguri Teaching Hospital isolation centre on May 10, 2020. Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation, has confirmed 3,912 infections and 117 deaths from the novel coronavirus. Audu MARTE / AFP

This installment addresses the question of COVID-19 and responsible Information management. I was egged on in this direction by the Centre for Information, Press and Public Relations (CIPPR) of the Lagos State University, Nigeria which organised the University’s 14th virtual lecture on October 20 which had turned out to be Black Tuesday following the shooting of peaceful and unarmed protesters by the military. After a few hours of delivering my lecture, most of the issues I addressed gained salience. I shall relate to four variables in this installment, namely, information, infodemic, the junk drawer phenomenon, and meta-narratives. The context is naturally the COVID-19. Since the Spanish flux of 1918-1919, the world has never been thrown into fear and panic in ways that COVID-19 has done. It has greatly impacted our world.

I begin with the question: what is information? Is it value-free? Information is processed data; it is news; it is actual happening; it is something told, and it is knowledge. Information shares all of the aforementioned characteristics. A journalist happens upon an actual happening but he/she has to process the information to make meaning out of it before dissemination through his/her medium. In this respect, protocols of discourse analysis and phenomenology which includes context, ideology, and the victim’s role come into play. Information with the advent of broadcast media could be both processed and unprocessed as the camera can capture actual events and passed on the way they are. It could subsequently take on other meanings as it moves from one medium to the other. This is precisely why information is not value-free. Let us leave the debate for ‘professorial clowns’ and simply say in the research world, we are told about the need for reflexivity, free our biases as much as we can from the object of our study. In a value-laden world, it is a tall order but we strive at being at least scientific through a systematic presentation of our data. Ultimately we have a body of information that constitutes knowledge.

One of the greatest challenges of COVID-19 is traversing the amount of information about its nature remains largely uncharted, and no curative vaccine has been found. We still expecting. In this uncertain context, you then have ‘infodemic’, which is the mainstreaming of facts and fiction accompanying narratives of the pandemic. The infodemic covers false information about the nature of the pandemic, cure, both prophylactic and curative. Its far-reaching consequence is seen in the ‘bunker mentality’ that it has engendered. COVID-19 lethality has created widespread fear and induced an inclination to a shut-in. Dr. Tedros of WHO has emphasised “the importance of facts, not fear…misinformation around the new strain (causes confusion and spreads fear to the general public.” He further notes that WHO was not just battling the virus but “the trolls and conspiracy theories” that undermine the organisation’s responses. The Guardian of UK even sounded an alarm as it noted that “misinformation on the coronavirus might be the most contagious thing about it.” This leads me to the junk drawer phenomenon.

According to Levitin, “The junk drawer is a place where things collect until you have time to organise them, or because there is no better place for them. Sometimes, what looks like a mess may not have to be physically reorganised at all, if you can slow down and observe the organisation in the thicket of details.” In the age of Information and Communication Technology (ICT), there is this problem of information overload. The blurb to Daniel Levitin’s The Organised Mind reads, “In the digital age we are overwhelmed by information. Unable to make sense of it all, our creativity plummets and decision-making suffers.” Again Levitin speaks to this dilemma. As he puts it: What matters today, in the Internet era, is not whether you know a particular fact but whether you know where to look it up, and then, how to verify that the answer is reasonable. On the Web, anything goes…Now are there are thousands of opinions, and the correct ones are no more likely to be encountered than the incorrect ones. As the old saying goes, a man with one watch always knows what the time is; a man with two watches is never sure. We are now less sure of what we know and don’t know. More so than any other time in history, it is crucial that each of us takes responsibility for verifying the information we encounter, testing it and evaluating. This is the skill we must teach the next generation of citizens of the world, the capability to think clearly, completely, critically, and creatively.”

However, there are advantages of the present information age, overloaded with liberating contents, and also presents a discourse-analytical dilemma, not sure if Levitin’s prescription takes care of it. In its transformation of what John Downing in The Media Machine, paraphrasing Jurgen Habermas describes “a mass of premoulded undebated opinions” of traditional mass media to one of “300 exabytes of human-made information,” the ICT, or the Web circumvents official censorship. The challenge is making meaning of the exabytes of man-made information. My friend, Toyin Enikuomehin, provides what appears a technical leeway in feedback to my presentation. According to him, “As Internet penetration increases, information overload also increases. Internet and all associated tools are used to generate information. Thus, as more people adopt the use of Internet services, the increase is inevitable thus making relevant information exist within the space of largely irrelevant information. That is the reason behind the several pieces of research in information retrieval where the sentiment Analysis Algorithm is used to identify fake news. WhatsApp for example will flag a message as being forwarded several times. Intelligence software agents are adequate in determining and classifying information.” 

For meaning-making, let’s get down on the road to meta-narratives. The focus on meta-narratives is a return to the ideological mooring of the bipolar world that is the abbreviated trajectory of making sense of our world is either liberal or radical. The liberal represents a cluster of freedoms such as freedom of the press, speech, association, ownership of private property, and the other is about our collective wellbeing, social justice, and egalitarianism. It is within this meta-scheme that we can make meaning or put reality together in our world of information overload. We need to be guided by facts conveyed on the matrix of meta-narratives, not trolls or fears as we confront the COVID-19. As we say in journalism, ‘comments are free and facts are sacred’. Scott Turow, New York Times bestselling author Identical and Innocent, sees Levitin’s The Organised Mind as the “perfect anti-dote to the effect of information overload.” But I go in a different direction—the path of meta-narratives.  
Akhaine is a Professor of Political Science at the Lagos State University.

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