Within three days of Nipah virus becoming a newsworthy creature, I have received a well-articulated WhatsApp forward educating me about “Bats-nipah virus-corporate ballgame”.
I am all agog reading a complex story about bats, the amount of insects they eat, the fact that their saliva is used to make “heart and blood coagulation medicine” leading all the way up (or down) to Nipah story being a diabolic conspiracy of “corporates” that wants bats eradicated to prevent spread of the virus so they can benefit from selling mosquito repellents, pesticides and also medicines for mosquito-linked diseases, not to mention “vaccine for the virus”.
As some Dr Vivek Hegde has spent his ten precious minutes (safely presuming that he did no research; as, if he did, he wouldn’t have written this) to put this let-me-save-the-world message, I am forced to think.
It is not about Nipah virus or bats, but about the impact of such posts that are overwhelming the social media.
It is insightful to look closely at the structure of its prose, as it has some interesting qualities worth noting.
It is by a “doctor”, it is long, it is “scientific” and it is putting together “facts”, making it a serious post that a layman will find impressive and informative.
The most important part is that it brings out interesting “facts” about bats, all of which are absolutely correct within a context.
Some bats do eat insects, tons of them in one single night and are crucial for ecology as insect-controllers. Knock out bats and you will surely need lot more insecticides and there will be a plague of arbovirus-linked illnesses.
So, all in all, it is an insightful and logical inter-connection of uncommon facts leading to a scary conclusion that people must be made aware of.
If that is the case, where has the author gone wrong?
The problem is, the “bats” under consideration for spread of Nipah virus and the insect-eating bats that “Dr Hegde” has based his conclusion on are not the same.
Of all mammals that I am scientifically interested in, bats are my favourite; as, even though I am not trained in zoology, I can flaunt my knowledge about their Latin name without using Google because they have been really nice and considerate.
Bats come in two simple types, large and small, ie mega and micro, and as they have “hands” turned into wings, so they are called chiroptera.
Microchiroptera are small insect-eating bats that you see buzzing about chirpings in the evening, while megachiroptera are the large fruit bats that you can see flying majestically in the sky in the evening.
Unfortunately for us, it is the large fruit bats (also known as flying foxes) that live alongside us are the hosts of a large number of viruses. Nipah is just one of the many deadly viruses that use fruit bat population as a reservoir.
Fruit bats being warm blooded mammals just like us, fruit bat-specific viruses find it easier to jump across species barrier and infect humans, just as Ebola or Nipah virus did, mainly because they live close to us, and are even eaten by some communities.
On the other hand, the insect-eating bats that Dr Hegde is worried about have nothing to do with Nipah, and it would amount to absolute insanity (that we actually can’t discount!) if government decides to eradicate them to prevent spread of Nipah.
If we return to the structure of this social media forward, it is clearly a misinformation virus, but well-disguised to escape scrutiny and enter human brain as information.
If we extrapolate the virus metaphor, it is easy to see that it would require antibody of highly specific bat-information to identify it as a pathogen.
As most people will lack bat-information “antibody”, this post has potential to enter the host mind undetected and entrench itself as information.
Once it is integrated as information in human mind, it can use the mind machinery to synthesise anti-corporate anger within the mind.
The biggest problem of misinformation virus infection is, once it enters your mind, it has power to change you.
There is a strong possibility that the nipah story is written by a mildly misinformed doctor in good faith who is unaware about mega and Microchiroptera distinction, but there are a million more such stories structured in similar “believable” way floating around social media.
Each of them is circulating and infecting brains to serve agenda, very often malicious.
The problem is, it is very difficult to identify such pathogenic strains because it will require a lot of work from highly informed people. At this point, we are not armed with such immune system soldiers to fight the menace of misinformation.
As misinformation viruses grow, humanity is required to take mitigation measures, and the only real mitigation against these viruses can be learnt from how we avoid viral infections in real world.
Misinformation is mostly a social-media borne virus, so avoid using social media is a simple way to escape, but if you must use it as a source of information, please try and ensure that you don’t believe anything before you have put it through logical scrutiny.
A logical mind is like a fit body. It offers immunity against most misinformation viruses, so cultivation of rationality is the way forward for a healthy mind in modern times.
This world is now on the verge of misinformation virus epidemic worse than Nipah, Ebola or HIV. You need to take your own care!