Letter to the SNJ Editor, on misinformation

Tuesday 5th May, 2020

Dear Editor,


As the team behind the Stroud Coronavirus Community Response, we are concerned about misinformation being spread about the coronavirus pandemic – including locally. This was highlighted in the Stroud News and Journal article on the poster in the Beacon, but there is also a wave of social media content being shared that is misleading or false.SCCR was started by a group of local volunteers to share quality, fact-checked information and guidance, and to help support each other in our communities during the pandemic.

None of us are paid but we devote several hours each day trying to provide the best information to support people in the district. The overwhelming majority of the community response has been inspiring: businesses and volunteers making PPE visors, people sewing scrubs, support for the Food Bank and Long Table’s efforts to ensure everyone has the food they need, and local mutual aid groups taking care of their neighbours. In short: looking after each other.

We call on everyone in Stroud to work together to make sure we are helping those in need, addressing gaps and problems by sharing requests for help. At the same time, we encourage people to hold authorities accountable and responsible, and fact-check claims along the way. If you need help with fact-checking, our team can assist and signpost you.

Sharing wrong and misleading information is not only confusing and disruptive, but can cause serious harm – from racist attacks on people of Asian appearance or origin, to damaging vital communications infrastructure, and creating disharmony between friends. At the same time, poor quality information creates space for fraudulent claims – scams that con people out of their money, promising ‘cures’ which are no such thing, for example.

The latest available Office for National Statistics data makes clear that:

  • Of the deaths registered in the week ending 24th April, “8,237 mentioned “novel coronavirus (COVID-19)” – 37.4% of all deaths in England and Wales.
  • In Stroud district, 53 people have died with Covid-19 as an underlying cause or mentioned on the death certificate – this is 10.7% of the 495 people who have died in the district between 1st January and 24th April. Between 1st March 2020 and 17th April 2020 (a fairer comparison as the virus had not yet spread in England in January-March), Covid-19 was a factor for 20.1% of the people who died.

This kind of up to date information was not included on the poster, which selectively showed only January-March figures. This is misleading – minimising and trivialising the virus and its rapid spread. Messages like this are hurtful to those who have seen people close to them suffer and die, and/or are working on NHS and social care frontlines to treat, protect and care for us.

Downplaying the suffering caused can also lead people to think they can relax their guard against transmission, which in turn can increase the spread of the virus. In Stroud District, a high proportion of us are at risk – around 1 in 5 are aged 65 or over. Others have pre-existing health conditions such as heart disease, lung conditions, diabetes or a compromised immune system, which make them vulnerable to the virus. These are our neighbours, our friends, our loved ones, the people we work with. We need to remember this – even if we personally feel safe and unthreatened by disease. We have seen the virus can affect those who are young and healthy without pre-existing health conditions as well as those at risk.

We’ve also seen stories of telecoms towers being damaged or burnt down elsewhere, disrupting people’s ability to communicate. At least one hospital has been affected by this. This is at a time when the internet is more essential than ever for connecting, shopping, accessing benefits that replace lost income, and using other services that meet important needs. It is worth stating 5G is not present in Stroud and we are still seeing the effects of the virus.

We know the pandemic is exceptional and worrying, and the measures to tackle it are making life difficult. We have spent time creating, and referring people to, a list of local and national resources to support emotional and mental health during this time. This resource includes ideas submitted by dozens of members of the Facebook group.

The situation is very complex and difficult to deal with, at the personal as well as the social and political levels. We may sometimes feel helpless – and there are many things that are and will be uncertain for some time. There is room for debate and discussion about the best ways to handle things. There are ways to deal with uncertainty and debate that encourage connection, provide reassurance, and check for validity. That is why we are firm on ensuring that we use the best sources of information, and why we will continue to respond strongly to attempts to sow potentially dangerous misinformation.

Together we can build a truly resilient community.

Sincerely,

Nadin Hadi, Sarah Dixon, James Beecher, and Nick Turner – administrators for Stroud Coronavirus Community Response – community members coming together to support each other and help those of us who are more at risk or are in need of support. SCCR is not affiliated to any political or religious groups.

We encourage you to get involved via neighbournetworks.uk or facebook.com/groups/stroudcorona