Commentary: Too much COVID-19 information can be disorientating and unnecessarily stressful
The volume of information and speed at which things change should lead us to develop better strategies at managing information overload, say the NTU Centre for Information Integrity and the Internet’s Edson C Tandoc Jr, Zhang Hao Goh, Hyunjin Kang and Benjamin Li.
SINGAPORE: You’re scrolling on Facebook and come across a friend’s post sharing the latest news about COVID-19.
Then, you get a WhatsApp alert. Maybe it’s the most recent update from gov.sg. Or a forwarded message sent to your family chatgroup about Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s address last Saturday (Oct 9).
You decide to turn the television on — they’re also talking about the coronavirus.
This avalanche of information you receive can be dizzying — updates on number of cases, sad messages from friends or family having to self-isolate and new restrictions in place.
MORE EXPERIENCING INFORMATION OVERLOAD IN SINGAPORE
Communication researchers across the world are examining COVID-19-induced information overload, concerned about people’s well-being as developments about the pandemic have dominated our lives for almost two years.
Information overload happens when an individual is exposed to a volume of data that exceeds his or her capacity to process.
This may lead to various consequences, such as poor recall, a weak understanding of important information or increased lethargy.
In Singapore, a recent online survey we conducted at the NTU Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information in August found some 30 per cent of the polled 674 Singapore citizens and permanent residents report experiencing COVID-19 information overload.
We’re processing information from morning when the daily updates on the gov.sg Whatsapp channel come in to the end of the day as we go to bed.
We found a slight increase in the number of respondents who frequently use news websites in Singapore, up by about 7 percentage points from our first survey in December 2020 to our second survey this June.
While this is an encouraging development, as more people are reading trusted sources and keeping themselves informed of the latest news, this may also contribute to increased exposure to information related to the pandemic.
In many ways, Singapore is expected to be more susceptible to information overload, having one of the highest Internet penetration rates in the world, with some of the fastest speeds, meaning we receive quick and easy access to information within and from outside the country.
Singaporeans are also among the most active social media users in the world pre-coronavirus, with this trend ticking up as seniors and vulnerable groups are encouraged to go online to fight social isolation.
The 2021 Digital News Report for Singapore, published by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, found 88 per cent of the more than 2,000 Singapore residents surveyed in January use WhatsApp, while 70 per cent use Facebook and 73 per cent YouTube.
Yet on these social media spaces, credible information from authorities and heartfelt personal updates appear alongside misinformation on unsafe home remedies, vaccine-related conspiracy theories and more, adding up to a barrage of information too much to handle.
Social media use can be a bane in trying times as we struggle to cope with a deluge of counsel. In fact, frequent consumption of social media for COVID-19 related updates is the one thing our August survey found to be linked to higher levels of information overload.
Is it time to stop persuading people to take the COVID-19 vaccine and consider mandates in Singapore? Listen to two infectious diseases expert weigh in on CNA's Heart of the Matter:
Volume aside, the type of information we are exposed to can be disorientating.
We are exposed to tentative and rapidly changing COVID-related developments, from the number of cases in intensive care and how many are unvaccinated, to dining policies and new rules limiting access to the unvaccinated with implementation dates and details sometimes also changing.
We may be searching for specific things. Students and teachers look out for whether classes will have to go online. Business owners also have to keep an eye on regulations. Yet we are also exposed to potentially emotionally taxing personal updates from friends, such as learning that someone we know has caught the virus.
Some of this information access is intentional. We watch the morning news to keep track of what’s happening, visit Government websites to check on vaccinated travel lanes (VTL), or subscribe to alerts from news outlets so we’re in the know.
But sometimes, we may be exposed to COVID-related information even if we are not intentionally seeking it or prepared to engage with it. We may be scrolling to check on our friends’ latest social media posts, but then incidentally chance upon a news update about the pandemic shared by a friend.
INFORMATION OVERLOAD HAS SERIOUS REPERCUSSIONS
Information overload may kick in if we find ourselves unable to focus on, or find it hard to understand new information.
There are serious repercussions. It can affect our ability to make informed and careful analysis. It can make us feel fatigued, anxious or frustrated, and even increase our stress levels.
In our recent survey, those who report higher levels of information overload have more negative attitudes toward COVID-19 vaccines and say they are less likely to continue using TraceTogether if it will no longer be monitored by authorities.
This echoes our earlier findings. In a series of surveys conducted in Singapore during the first few months of the pandemic, those who reported high levels of information overload were more likely to believe in COVID-19 misinformation.
What’s likely happening here is our reliance on shortcuts in selecting what to believe in when dealing with information overload, instead of scrutinising each message we encounter.
Headline-skimming is one of the most common shortcuts. However, news headlines tend to focus on what is most recent or what is most striking.
If headlines become our focus, we may fixate on deaths and rising infection numbers, instead of relevant, actionable information - like when we can register for booster shots.
In another survey we conducted in July across 10 cities in Asia involving some 6,000 respondents, those in cities with higher number of daily cases report being more fearful.
Relying on shortcuts is what researchers call heuristic processing, as opposed to a more thoughtful way of engaging with information.
Worryingly, this has been linked to risky behaviours, such as surrendering to a lack of motivation to undertake protective health behaviours, and decision-making based on insufficient or unreliable information.
WHY INFORMATION OVERLOAD MAKES US SUSCEPTIBLE TO MISINFORMATION
So what’s the right amount of information? There really is no magic number.
People have different information thresholds. What may be an insufficient for someone may be crossing the information overload threshold for another.
This happens when some require more information to orientate themselves – like a parent concerned about kids needing to shift into home-based learning while also interested in whether the family of four can eat together outside.
We don’t enjoy information overload, so we usually try to manage it. Some do that by tuning out completely, what some communication researchers call information avoidance.
Tuning out, however, risks missing out on important and urgent information - like the news that those unvaccinated, with some exceptions, won’t be able to head into shopping malls anymore from Oct 19 onwards.
Others engage in information scanning – avoiding seeking out information and only attending to relevant updates.
Scanning, however, makes us pay attention to only news of interest to us or are already consistent with our beliefs because they require less effort to think about.
CHOOSE YOUR INFORMATION SOURCES CAREFULLY
So what can we do?
First, when it comes to COVID-19 information, prioritise trusted, reliable sources to rely on when personal bandwidths are limited.
Focus on legitimate information sources, such as authoritative health experts who study scientific evidence and news organisations accountable for the information they provide.
Relying on the tsunami of information on social media can push us to use mental shortcuts and become more susceptible to misinformation.
Some posts on social media attribute inaccurate claims and false information to “doctors” to appear more credible, but upon closer scrutiny and vetting, these figures referred to turn out to be either fictitious or misquoted.
Fact-checking resources online, like Factually and Blackdot research, routinely flag and debunk such posts, but very few of us check them on a regular basis.
TAKE SOCIAL MEDIA BREAKS
Second, take regular social media breaks.
We tend to use social media to escape from the daily grind. We’re tired from working? We scroll through Facebook. We’re bored? We turn to TikTok. We want to procrastinate from our assignments? We check Instagram or YouTube.
But seeking entertainment from these platforms exposes us to more things contributing to information overload.
Engaging in a social media detox once every one or two weeks can alleviate information overload. Shunning social media completely isn’t a solution when we use such platforms to connect with family and friends as gatherings are still limited.
Finally, while it will help if we filter out information we consider unnecessary, we also don’t want to filter out information that may challenge our pre-existing beliefs.
We shouldn’t engage only with like-minded people and sources. We need to be mindful that staying within our social silos may also hamper the extent to which we understand others.
For example, if we are unsure about getting the vaccine, we should not talk only to those unsure or against it, even if this may be comforting. Talk to doctors and ask others who have gotten the vaccine.
We shouldn’t let information overload lead us to becoming close-minded.
Edson C Tandoc Jr is an Associate Professor and Associate Chair for Research at the NTU Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information (WKWSCI) and the Director of the Centre for Information Integrity and the Internet (IN-cube).
Zhang Hao Goh is a Post-doctoral Research Fellow at IN-cube, specialising in human cognitive responses and their coping behaviours toward threats.
Hyunjin Kang is an Assistant Professor at WKWSCI and a member of IN-cube. She examines the psychological effects of interactive communication technologies.
Benjamin Li is an Assistant Professor at WKWSCI and a member of IN-cube. His research centres on the effects of communication and media technologies on human behaviour and psychology.