Back in the 14th century, the rapid spread of bubonic plague was blamed on a variety of causes, including a divine punishment for collective sin, celestial alignment of the stars and an imbalance in the human body’s ‘four humours’. It was several hundred years before scientists determined the true cause – fleas carrying the bacterium Yersinia pestis.
Despite all of our advances in science and technology, falsehoods about the origin, spread and effective treatment of COVID-19 abound. In fact, the most effective communication tool humans have invented to date – the internet – has only served to give oxygen to rumours and lies and helped them to proliferate. It doesn’t help that our global leaders are some of the most culpable when it comes to spreading misinformation.
We have access to more information than at any point in history. Yet, we seem more vulnerable to a misinformation epidemic than ever.
Customer experience expert, Gerry McGovern, recently observed how ‘we have been too dependent on technology to manage information’ and this is contributing to the spread of misinformation. Part of the problem, he suggests, is that ‘we have stopped investing in core human skills built up over centuries to ensure the quality and integrity of information. We used to call these professionals editors.’
The role of an editor is crucial to producing clear, evidenced-based information. We check that claims are substantiated by evidence, arguments are clearly presented and logical, and the language used is suited to the intended readership. The best way to combat misinformation is to counter it with quality factual content.
McGovern was writing back in February, but his conclusion couldn’t be more pertinent in the current crisis where scientifically sound information is crucial in responding to the challenges of COVID-19:
We need new types of human editors, who are able to work in tandem with technology and the collective intelligence that the Web has unleashed. This is how we will achieve quality, accuracy, transparency, and clarity and simplicity of communication.
So, it turns out that editing is an essential service.