COVID-19: Fake news, the Domino Effects & the Prisoner’s Dilemma

Updated: Aug 15, 2020

Irrationality in the complexed context of the Information Age P/s: Well… the title sounds big, but it is just my opinion on a recent story of mine. Have fun!

The outbreak of Coronavirus (COVID-19) at the end of 2019 might have turned into the first pandemic of the new decade, 202X. Here, I will consider it as a pandemic. This is the first time in my life I experience a real pandemic as an adult (I had never heard of SARS until COVID-19 came), and things are going on in pretty bad shape. Governments were “underestimating” the pervasive expansion of the virus; social media are heated than ever with debates and conflicts caused by fake news; people are fighting the illness in almost all corners of the Earth. And, people are fighting people as well. Physically. Mentally. Virtually. Here, let me share with you a story I observed on social media these recent days. I often check Facebook and Instagram several times a day, and they become indispensable mediums connecting me to the world these teleworking days. And shared posts are interesting recently. A lady (a friend of mine whose name I will keep for myself) turned her iPhone camera to some toilet-paper-free empty racks in a supermarket and made a boomerang story with a caption “F*** crazy people! Some people are really in need!” (content is modified, but I tried to keep the nuance of the post). The story was shared on Instagram. Several days later, I met her again on Instagram, but this time with her husband and each of them was holding one pack of 12-roll toilet paper. No caption, but satisfied faces. Seriously? Do you buy two packs of 12-roll toilet paper of two-person family while you know that bunches of people out there are crying for this necessity? Or even regularly, you always buy that many? ***Before I go further, I don’t want you to misunderstand that I am criticizing anyone even though logically speaking, their actions are not likely to be welcomed by many at this moment. This writing simply aims to share my observation of what is happening in the COVID-19 chaos caused by fake news. The fake news is not new, but in fact so prevalent now on the Internet. I am sure you encounter dozens of it recently, especially on social media like Facebook. The typical route, in my observation, happens like this: unofficial websites or Facebook groups share incorrect information on Facebook, tailor its wording to make it sound so real and official, and frighten people running through it. And then, we have some people/ a group of people whom I call “Army of the Truth” condemning fake news and putting efforts to heal the wounds by sharing more-official sources. Bravo, Army of the Truth! You guys are going awesome! But I hope that I don’t disappoint you after voicing my thought that your efforts are quite helpless if you guys are alone. Then, we have a group which I name “Cursing Army,” which involves angry and enough-with-fake-news people shouting offensive words online. All groups of people are making our virtual world chaotic and uncertain. But, I think it is unavoidable when things go like this. Number 1: Start with a COMPLEXED world I strongly advise you to read a book called Team of Teams by General Standley McChrystal to understand this topic further. As you can see, I highlighted COMPLEXED because the word “complexed” is different from “complicated,” which is a word we usually used for things in the old world. See the picture, and I will tell you. Complicated is used to describe a chain of reaction (cause & result) of an event, and we are likely to be able to trace back to its root no matter how complex it is. A computer program is one example though it seems very complex. It is not complex. The computer program looks confusing because it is combined with many (many!) small calculations. Complex is, however, used to describe a network reaction (everything can become cause or result of everything else). You can imagine it is like a spider net. A small vibration at one particular point can generate waves to the whole network. Fake news in COVID-19 pandemic are complex (very complex!) because we have not a single vibration point, but thousands of millions of them interacting in their own rules (making fake news, sharing fake news, blaming fake news, re-correcting fake news, etc.) They add and subtract the effects of one other in many rules. The virtual Internet is uncertain and full of traps. Number 2: The Domino Effect Ok, let’s say a person finally gets news (likely to be fake news or unclear news) online and decide to buy toilet paper because she is so worried that her family will soon suffer from the shortage of toilet paper. It should be no surprise that many other women, men, old and young, are thinking in the same way. They all flood into stores, fight with others until the last rolls of toilet paper. Now, we have the “Army of the Truth,” who loves their country and hates fake news. They call upon people to calm down and think, and things will get better. However, the Domino Effect shows quite a significant power here. It is fast and furious. Also, you should imagine here we have many chains of Domino interconnected. Once a trigger appears, everything falls. It is not absolutely hopeless, but too fast and usually out of control. Number 3: Prisoner Dilemma This is the most interesting apart in the logic I want to share with you: Prisoner’s Dilemma, a model analyzed in Game Theory I learned in university, and I think that it can be applied to this situation. Of course, Prisoner’s Dilemma is a fairly simple model, and you might point out some not-really-similar points in my explanation. However, please bear with me and think carefully since they do have similar aspects, I believe. In this part, I will come back to the story I introduced at the beginning about a mysterious lady irritated by people’s overreactions (buying all toilet papers) but soon stocking 24 rolls for her two-person family.

Many of you might be new to the Prisoner’s Dilemma model, so here comes a brief explanation. There are two criminals/ suspects (A-san & B-san) arrested and put into two cells for interrogations. Both are offered the same set of rules as below: - If A-san and B-san betray each other (telling the police that the other is bad), each of them will be in prison for 2 years. à Look at the up-left block in the table. - If A-san betrays B-san, and B-san remains silent, A will be free (0 years), and B will be in prison for 2 years. (and vice versa) à Look at the up-right block & the down-left block in the table. - If A-san and B-san both stay silent, each of them will be in prison for 1 year. à Look at the up-right block in the table. Now, look at this. We can see that both A-san & B-san are likely to betray each other though they can choose to both stay silent and only have to be in prison for 1 year each, which is the best choice. This seeming irrationality happens due to the fact that they are not allowed to communicate with each other. In the fight for toilet paper, we have thousands of millions of people sitting in front of computers, but there is no way for all of us to gather and communicate on a topic. We cannot apply 100% Prisoner’s Dilemma on this Corona topic; however, I think they share similar points: - If you keep calm, stay home, and say no to more toilet paper, it is likely that others (many others) will empty all stores and you end up having none and staying smelly. - You know that if people maintain the normal pace of life as before, all of you will benefit. Everyone will have enough toilet paper and stay healthy. - However, everyone is worried that everyone else will cheat on him/her. Therefore, you end up storming into stores and getting as many as you want and feel secure. Conclusion I think we all should understand the complex nature of the Internet on which fake news is spread and the universal reactions of people in COVID-19 pandemic as well as any other urgent situations. If you are cursing other people, it is likely that fake news is attacking your emotional self (Read "Thinking, Fast and Slow" by Daniel Kahneman). Once you find chances to get benefits for yourself, you will be just really likely to do the same. For your reference 1. Team of Teams by General Standley McChrystal 2. Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman