Information Hygiene – The Concept and Its Relevance

IFor many months now, a plaguing worry has been the flooding of information on the worldwide web, and social media, in particular. The abundance of content is awe-inspiring, but simultaneously worrying because most of the information is unverified, often incorrect and inaccurate, and many a time based on optimized keywords, and hence frivolous and irrelevant.

Long forwards fill whatsapp and viber lists on our smartphones each morning. Even a cursory glance through, by a refreshed mind, makes one absorb 20-50% of what is written. This is because we all have inculcated what is called, ‘continuous partial attention”, the process of paying close attention simultaneously to multiple information sources, but only very superficially

 In present pandemic times when the coronavirus has become the most dreaded infection, it heightens our fears substantially, makes us lose our objectivity, lean more towards doomsday predictions, and scout around for more information, similarly unverified. Often, credibility becomes difficult to doubt when names like “John Hopkins University” or Dr Naresh Trehan ( CMD Medanta Hospital, Gurgaon, India), are quoted… till rebuttals and misattributions appear after a few days, and we find that those we trust have been used, to spread incorrect information.

This leaves the common man wondering what to believe, is any of the information true at all?  

The problem arises when we start quoting from posts we have read, and it spreads – becoming a viral narrative. Somewhere the fake news becomes real news unless contradicted by scientific facts and figures.

It is April 2020 and the world is going through probably the most tumultuous time, that we millennials have seen in our lifetimes. Dependent entirely on media coverage of news and information as we practice social distancing and remain confined to our homes, working and studying online, it becomes imperative to question what we read and hear. Rational, and objective mental capabilities are important and the need to sift through the massive stockpile of information to find credible, reliable news is of utmost importance.

All this is what made me notice a seemingly new concept of ‘information hygiene’. The term is self-revealing and resonates with my thinking completely, and made me research and find out more, what people have to say about it, and if there is any scientific evidence to prove its absence and any statistics even vaguely related to the term.

 Hygiene simply means being clean, maintaining certain basics to ensure good health. Various cleaning processes are the route to good hygiene. Over time, hygiene has been used in connection with food as well, and the latest I have seen is linked to information-even though the meaning is very different. Clean with reference to information would mean true information and not fabricated, exaggerated, or false information, meant to pass off as the truth.

Data hygiene is a closely related concept which involves processes to make data error free and hence clean. Information hygiene similarly seems to indicate factual, true information not lacking in authenticity, stating reality not tarnished by the figment of individual imagination, hype, bias or exaggeration.

The need for information cleansing or scrubbing, just as it exists in the realm of data, is paramount at present, when the common man is inundated with information, but remains confused what and how much of it to believe.

Information can be of various kinds:

  1. Small truths blown out of proportion to create sensational news that is eye catching even though highly exaggerated.
  2. Convictions that take the form a news piece, without an iota of truth but potential of having a big impact.
  3. News just for kicks. Some people enjoy the impact of a piece of information they share.
  4. Harmless news about trivialities especially about celebrities which will appeal to a limited audience but not have any adverse impact-often read, and forgotten.
  5. Verified news, backed by research, beliefs of thinkers and experts in the field, or pieces of information shared by the most reliable and trusted intelligentsia .

Information hygiene becomes critical during times of crisis, as during this pandemic which has shaken the world, instilled so much fear, led to massive medical, economic and psychological costs, with public morale down and fears of the future causing unparalleled stress. The threat is to life itself, to survival, and the future seeming bleak, till a vaccine and a cure appears on the horizon. The need of the hour is to propagate facts, instill hope, share information that will reinstate optimism, and make people and their morale more upbeat, than what it has been for the last couple of months.

The information overload is weighing us down negatively, giving us talking points, something to share, however untrue but seemingly significant. Increased density of dataflow, abundance of ‘information noise’ makes the mind retain the irrelevant and often forget the significant.

It is here and now that responsible agencies, governments and organizations begin a concerted campaign to sift out fake news, ensure stating of factual information and rate news and websites on the basis of the credible information they provide.