Society is constantly challenged by the spread of misinformation — and the rash actions that sometimes follow

In sport, it is commonly said that a team is only as good as its weakest player.

The saying is as true in football, rowing or hockey as it is within society.

Last week, the Government of Singapore raised its risk alert for the COVID-19 virus. The news, which broke late-Friday afternoon, prompted a rush to supermarkets and pharmacies for food and personal hygiene products.

By 9pm, I had received several messages instructing me to immediately stock-up on necessities. Soon there will be none left in Singapore, acquaintances warned. Residents will be locked-up at home, unable to leave the house again. The world, in the eyes of some, was coming to an end.

Except it wasn’t.

Those who panicking hadn’t read the news release issued by the Ministry of Health (MOH). The bulletin clearly outlined the government’s position, and listed the precautionary measures various age groups must take. Nowhere did it mention stocking up with food, nor did it say or hint that people would be forced to stay at home.

The following morning, I attempted to do my weekly supermarket shop. Usually the store is near-empty when I arrive at about 7am. This week it was packed. The shelves were bare, and customers were queuing for several hours.

No meat. No bread. No canned vegetables. No toilet paper.

Anxiety among shoppers was rife. Heated discussions broke out between customers, and staff engaged in agitated dialogue. Supermarkets, however, remained on-message: “There is more than enough food for everyone,” staff repeatedly told customers.

Despite clearly-articulated reassurances from government ministers and supermarket executives published in the mainstream media, many panicked, and continued to spread misinformation via WhatsApp and social media.

Twenty-four hours later, the shelves were almost full again.

The world didn’t come to an end.

Last week I concluded a smart cities series for a client. The project highlighted the benefits of smart technology to water supply, energy management, transportation and lighting. Leveraging internet-of-things technology, artificial intelligence, big data and the cloud, cities today can deliver services that only a mere few years ago were unthinkable. They can provide on-demand transportation through autonomous electric vehicles; predict water supply several years in advance; slash energy consumption by more than one-half, and much, much more.

Yet despite these ultra-smart technologies, I mused, cities are only as astute as the people who reside in them.

Last week’s experience proved that while nations like Singapore are among the most educated and cognisant globally, there are factions of society who, for a wide range of reasons, are ill-informed.

What more could have been done to stop the widespread panic that followed the government’s risk update?

Very little. However, below are a few potential solutions.

From a governmental perspective, the Singapore authorities acted quickly and the message was clear. Should a similar scenario happen again, perhaps an SMS can be sent to every mobile phone owner. This will ensure that the government’s words reach everyone, and that residents hear these ‘from the horse’s mouth’ per se. That said, such action might also trigger further fear.

Businesses can help by ensuring their workforces are informed of the latest updates issued by the government, do their best to counter incorrect information, and provide hygiene and other health-related items to workers. Last week’s events caught many businesses by surprise. Such companies must not only focus on internal continuity plans, they should also be prepared for external shocks — Kudos to Singapore’s office building managers, though, for swiftly implementing health screening procedures for tenants and guests.

The media, too, must be more aligned. The mainstream media in Singapore — Mediacorp and SPH — were consistent and in line with the government’s message. A few blog sites and posts made by individuals on social media were not, causing confusion among readers. There must also be greater alignment in the international media — granted, this will likely never happen. When addressing the issue of masks, for example, well-respected international titles such as The Guardian, New York Times and The Washington Post contradicted each other as to the effectiveness of using a mask, and which one to wear during the COVID-19 crisis — citing various health professionals and bodies to back their reporting.

Which leads on to the medical industry, who should also be united in its views. Doctors and medical experts have openly diverged on how best to tackle the virus, and how the general public must conduct itself. Perhaps the World Health Organization (WHO) should take on a more prominent role. However, while some nations like Singapore continue to work in close partnership with the WHO, others are less collaborative.

And lastly, the communications industry. Unless commissioned by clients to craft and amplify a company’s status or policies relating to such incidents, our role is redundant. Or is it?

I argue that as professionals, whose expertise is persuading businesses and members of the public to buy into a good, service or concept, we have a duty to ensure that accurate information is passed to friends, family and members of the local community, and that falsehoods are swiftly rebuked. In Singapore, for instance, the number of people working in the communications industry across marketing, advertising, media buying, public relations, creative services and more is in the tens of thousands. Our reach is probably more influential on societal maters than many within the industry realise.

We therefore have a role to make sure that all ‘team’ members within and beyond our circle of colleagues, friends, family and neighbours are informed, and that confusion and anxiety caused by misinformation and falsehoods are rectified.

Photo by SevenStorm JUHASZIMRUS from Pexels