Focus | Misinformation in the wake of Dorian

Hurricane Dorian was bad enough. It cost lives, limbs, homes and peace. It will take a long time and a great deal of effort and resources to overcome the challenges it created. There, however, is one challenge arising in the aftermath of Dorian that is simply self-inflicted. It’s the misinformation that has been spread about the response and recovery process. Don’t get me wrong, a post-mortem is likely to reveal our lapses in policies, procedures, protocols and execution. This is not surprising; we have never been a country given to thoroughness in government operations. Historic Dorian exposed that weakness along with others. This notwithstanding, some Facebook postings, WhatsApp reporting and word of mouth rumoring were simply pathetic.

I took time to dispel many inaccuracies sent my way. Whether it was lies or inaccuracies about bodies lining the streets of Grand Bahama, the lack of water at the Rand Memorial Hospital, the stealing of money donated to the government, the neglect of Haitians affected by the storm, the reject of persons trying to go to the USA, or the more recent charging of fees to volunteer workers, I have had more than my share of discussions to provide facts or clarification. All this misinformation publishing can be exhausting to combat but combated it must be.

In the age of Google, Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp, among other media, lies have as large a platform as the truth. Undata – a term I created to describe efforts to undermine data – has as much carriage as data. Stories, in the age of the internet, can rise to the status of legend, even though they are entirely fictitious. It is in this world that some of our own people in their words or the words of others have been broadcasting untruths about ourselves in the aftermath of one of the most catastrophic events in our history. Some of this was done out of sheer ignorance; some out of the exuberance of first-to-publish in the age of social media; others out of narrow self-interest; and yet others out of political fervor. Whatever the reason, the impact is not simply local, as many of these untruths, errors and misinformed sayings go across the world, often unchecked.

It is no wonder then that while in Los Angeles last week and in Miami this week, I found myself addressing the genuine concerns of some influential souls about the state of affairs in The Bahamas after the passage of Dorian. I spoke to their concerns about the treatment of Haitians, the handling of funds and the distribution of relief supplies. I was honest about our deficiencies but was equally honest about the inaccuracies that they had come to express concerns about. These people control millions of dollars of potential relief for The Bahamas and much more in goodwill. They were being put off by our own misinformation campaign about ourselves.

No one can control social media or those who use it. Social media is a good and powerful tool. But much like a knife, you can use it to filet fish for a fine meal or stab a human being for a tragic loss. What we can do is call out those who would publish that which they have not vetted, checked, confirmed or tested. We can remind them that the very country they say they love and want better for in their criticism, is the very country they are damaging through their reckless tweets, posts or recordings. Perhaps in doing so, some will listen and reduce the damage we are causing ourselves. We can only try. For what it is worth, imagine if this misinformation was replaced with strong appeals and helpful suggestions about how we can improve our response and work with the world for recovery. Just imagine what would happen. For what it is worth.

• Zhivargo Laing is a Bahamian economic consultant and former Cabinet minister who represented the Marco City constituency in the House of Assembly.


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