Impact of infodemic, misinformation and disinformation | Sunday Observer

Impact of infodemic, misinformation and disinformation

3 January, 2021

The term ‘infodemic’ came into use throughout the world since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic in late 2019 and became known globally within a brief period. Infodemic is described as an overabundance of information, predominantly online and offline, attempting to disseminate wrong information to undermine public response. Perhaps, the term ‘infodemic’ was initially created taking into consideration the adverse effects of a pandemic that produces a tremendously harmful impact on public life.

Information relevant to infodemic is often false without a credible source. Due to easy availability and access to the internet, fake news spread quickly online, mainly through social media. Unverified or wrong information flow can fuel fear and speculation in society. Often the effect is difficult to reverse unless strong countermeasures are adopted.


Misinformation is usually incorrect, false, or misleading information given online, offline, or by word of mouth, generally delivered without malice. Misinformation can mislead people enormously depending on the receiver. In contrast, disinformation is much more harmful, usually fabricated, false, and sinister news deliberately spread to influence public opinion to deceive. The Sri Lankan public has witnessed infodemic, misinformation, and disinformation throughout history, both modern and ancient, particularly, fabricated fake information in politics.

The overload of incorrect information about a crisis or a political situation can be tremendously harmful to peoples’ overall mental health. When false information keeps on spreading, the day-to-day life of the public is negatively affected, and dejection and misery can settle in society.


Why do Sri Lankans like to spread disinformation? Do people believe that the incorrect information they read is true? Or do they spread such disinformation knowingly that it is fake? The answer is that all three can take place depending on the person who initiates the spread of false information. If it is politically inclined, those with conflicting political ideologies tend to presume that the contents are true and redistribute it further. On the other hand, some with evil intentions are likely to share it with society even if they know that the news is fabricated. In Sri Lanka, almost every political party experiences this phenomenon, both, positively and negatively.

The best recent example on infodemic is the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. Many countries have witnessed the flow of false and malicious information. Especially, social media has become a blessing as well as a nuisance during the pandemic.

While social media has been active in delivering essential health information to society, the same medium has spread misinformation affecting the response of the general public creating confusion through unverified rumours, often with exaggerated claims. The biggest issue is, unlike political information where the public usually is divided, in a common national crisis, misinformation can create chaos in the society.

In a report published in 2020, the British House of Commons Digital, Culture, and Sports Committee (DCSC) revealed that significant real-world harm arose from the fake news on the pandemic. It is observed by various research organisations in the world that the majority of the people are concerned about whether the news on the internet is true or fake, creating misunderstanding and confusion.

Digital media

The rapid scale-up of misinformation and disinformation surrounding the coronavirus outbreak are exceptional. Due to the opportunities created by digital media, the effect of infodemics is more challenging than ever before. The overflow of information without control affects the physical and mental health of people. Therefore, the information flow on Covid-19 has to be controlled by acting together to curtail and counter the adverse effects on the masses.

Gossip websites and social media platforms that are excessively in use in Sri Lanka, predominantly FaceBook, cause a magnitude of mischief through misinformation and disinformation. Scathing attacks on the government and the opposing political parties are a common feature with thousands of defamatory postings daily. Frequent mudslinging with rumours deliberately published on influential personalities has become a common experience for decent digital media users.

Regrettably, the Sri Lankan public has witnessed even government spokesmen at press briefings utter unverified and malicious statements to slander other politicians. Some of them even go to the extent of publicly accusing prominent political figures of grave crimes to mislead the voters. The infamous ‘crocodile’ story is one such notable spread of disinformation. The same politician who also acted as the cabinet spokesman in the then government was known to make arbitrary statements, without any credible verification.

Fake news

These politically motivated accusations do not have any proof but are willful and cruel intentions to harm personalities. Social media and web disinformation have become a public nuisance due to the unavailability of a regulator and laws to control them. The politically inclined infodemic generates anguish and uncertainty in the public mind.

Fake news or distorted information is habitually and intentionally designed to harm people’s perceptions of the reality. Misinformation is not only used to influence political ideologies but also in commercial advertising. People often witness advertisements with fake claims appearing in the online and traditional media, created purposely to deceive prospective buyers. Disinformation, the more dangerous factor, spread through social media platforms also has become a tool to stir-up and intensify social conflicts. The notorious ‘Digana’ communal incident is an example of stirring up hatred between communities through disinformation.

People, organisations, NGOs, and even governments: foreign or our own, use fake news for different reasons. First to intensify social divisions or conflicts to influence people’s faith and secondly to distract the masses from important issues so that such issues can remain unresolved. This is common in many countries, even among affluent nations. For example, in the recently concluded presidential election in the USA, the outgoing President attempted, in advance, to convince the voters that voting will be rigged and impact the final result. Similarly, in Sri Lanka, following ‘Godel’s Theorem’ or the ‘Big lie’, some opposition parliamentarians recently made an unsuccessful attempt to spread the idea that the government has ‘failed’.

The accountability of journalists, both digital and conventional, can mitigate infodemic to a certain extent in Sri Lanka. According to this writer’s view, except the Sri Lanka Press Council (SLPC) that covers complaints against newspaper articles published in Sri Lanka, no other regulatory body exists for electronic or social media. Controlling or punitive actions against perpetrators are almost non-existent in the country so far and people with malicious intentions continue to publish fake news, and those who spread false information rarely face consequences.

Hence, it is time the government seriously engages in controlling the spread of fake news. A proper authority with adequate powers must be established to bring to book those who spread false information on social media. A recent statement by the present Media Minister on registering social media has earned severe criticism by parties with vested interests. Therefore, the mission will not be easy even if the public needs such control. The conventional media also needs monitoring but acting on them will be a daunting task as the media will collectively fight tooth and nail against such action.

However, whatever the actions taken by the government will face scathing attacks and misrepresentations by the opposition parties with the famous slogan ‘Media suppression’. Nevertheless, the unwavering and fearless leadership of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is the final opportunity for Sri Lanka on this severely affecting issue.