Combatting infodemics: Here’s how health communicators can help

We have all experienced it. We might even have contributed to it. Articles, videos, messages; information on a topic spreading like wildfire across the internet and especially on social media. It might be factual, but it might not be. We read it all and are left confused.

There is a term for it. Infodemic.

What is an infodemic and what is its link to public health?

The Macmillan Dictionary defines infodemic as ‘an excessive amount of information about a problem, which is sometimes incorrect and can have a negative effect on finding a solution.’

Another definition is ‘the spread of incorrect information, especially online.’

The term is a combination of information and epidemic, representing an epidemic of information. The name infodemic dates back to 2003 when the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak resulted in a mass of information being circulated.

So, while an infodemic can be the excessive spread of any information, it is usually used in reference to public health.

Infodemics at times involve deliberate attempts by groups or individuals to spread mis and disinformation to advance their own agendas. At other times, the aim may be to undermine public health advances or unfortunately, for political gain. Whatever the motive, infodemics impair our ability to separate facts from falsehoods, often causing mental, physical, and emotional stress.

Why are infodemics significant to public health?

Infodemics are dangerous to public health, particularly during public health emergencies when the correct information is essential to our very survival. The negative effects infodemics can have during public health emergencies include:

  • distrust in public health professionals and advisories
  • uncertainty about what information to believe
  • panic from conspiracy theories and other mis and disinformation
  • increased stigmatization of individuals and/or groups
  • ignoring public health guidelines thus endangering oneself and others
  • failure to access available medical interventions such as diagnostic tests and vaccinations, at times resulting in death.

With these serious and sometimes deadly consequences, infodemics must be tackled early and swiftly.

The latest infodemic affecting public health 

We are presently battling the greatest public health emergency of our generation. Data from Johns Hopkins University show that the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) has already infected over 45 million people worldwide, killing more than 1 million.

From COVID-19 was declared a public health emergency of international concern (PHEIC) by the World Health Organization (WHO) on January 30, 2020, a tsunami of information has followed.

This over-abundance of information led the Director-General of the WHO, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, to state ‘We’re not just fighting a pandemic; we’re fighting an infodemic,’ while speaking at the Munich Security Conference in February 2020.

And we have heard it all. From outdoor temperatures over 25°C preventing the disease, to holding your breath for ten seconds without coughing signalling that you don’t have it, to 5G mobile networks transmitting the virus, to injecting yourself with disinfectant to prevent getting the disease.

While infodemics are not new, the current COVID-19 infodemic is being exacerbated by the heavy use of social media and the fake news, conspiracy theories, and misinformation that already prevailed prior to the pandemic.

How are public health organizations handling the current infodemic?

True to Dr. Tedros’ words, public health organizations across the world have had to shoulder the difficult task of fighting the infodemic with as much vigour as for the pandemic. The WHO took the lead by quickly launching the WHO Information Network for Epidemics (EPI-WIN) to provide easy access to timely and accurate information from trusted sources.

Following a global consultation in April, the EPI-WIN developed a COVID-19 Infodemic Framework to guide governments and public health institutions with actionable steps they can take in combatting the infodemic. The WHO also held the 1st WHO Infodemiology Conference from June 29 to July 21, 2020, to among other things, understand the multidisciplinary nature of infodemic management.

You can find additional information about the WHO’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic through this detailed timeline.

Other agencies are helping in the fight. The United Nation’s (UN) Department of Global Communications has stepped up their efforts around fighting the infodemic and cybercrime.  In March, UN Chief António Guterres shared in a tweet, ‘Our common enemy is #COVID19, but our enemy is also an “infodemic” of misinformation.’

As part of its efforts, the Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO) has created a fact sheet on understanding the infodemic and misinformation.

Combatting infodemics: How can health communicators help?

In addition to public health agencies, health communicators also have a responsibility to help combat infodemics related to health. So, how can we help?

1. Do not become a part of the problem – always verify sources

As health communicators, we are duty-bound to provide accurate information. Do not fall prey to the need to circulate information too quickly.

While verifying sources is second nature to us, we must be more stringent in doing so during a public health emergency.

Ensure that the information can be trusted before sharing it. This goes for articles you write as well as information you share on social media. It may mean that you are not the first out the gates with a news article but being accurate supersedes being first with medical communication.

2. Be careful with preprints

Preprints – journal articles that have not yet been peer-reviewed – can be a great source of early information. However, you need to be careful with referencing preprints as the work sometimes fails to withstand a review, resulting in a change in information or worse, a full withdrawal.

If you can wait for the final peer-reviewed article, do so. Otherwise, state upfront that you are referencing a preprint.

3. Speak in a louder voice

Social media, and at times the traditional media, amplify the voices of those spreading false information. Health communicators must speak in a louder voice. When facing an infodemic, post and share as much accurate information as you can on your blogs, social media, and other platforms. Also, do not be afraid to debunk obvious myths, fake news, and other forms of misinformation.

4. Be knowledgeable about the topic

You must be knowledgeable to combat an infodemic. If you do not have the in-depth knowledge to communicate confidently, reach out to experts, especially those on the frontlines, and gather the insider knowledge. The more knowledgeable you sound, the more believable you will be.

5. Develop a reputation for trustworthiness

Establish yourself as a trusted source of information and a voice against misinformation. Always cite reliable and scientifically accurate sources. If you already have a reputation for trustworthiness, it will be easier to leverage this in an infodemic.

6. Guide people towards trusted sources

Share reputable and trusted sources with the public. Guide people to websites such as the WHO, UN, PAHO, and the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Share local sources such as your local public health agency or ministry of health as well.

7. Educate your immediate circle

Speak to family, friends, and others in your circle to help them understand the situation. Inform them about the dangers of misinformation and encourage them to scrutinize all information they receive before deciding to share. However, avoid being confrontational or condescending in your approach as this will turn people off. Aim for simple, honest, open discussions. People tend to listen to and believe those they know even more than the experts. Use this to your advantage.

8. Use all your writing skills to connect with the audience

You will need all your writing skills to present information when trying to combat an infodemic. During a public health emergency, medical terminology and jargon are likely flying everywhere. Write in plain language that is easy to understand. Simplify complex concepts and terminology and avoid or explain jargons. A good story can connect you with the audience and help them better understand what you are trying to convey.

You can find some excellent tips for writing to make COVID-19 coverage understandable in this piece by Roy Peter Clark of the Poynter Institute.

9. Meet people where they are

Even the most scientifically sound message will get lost if it is not delivered in the appropriate forum. Meet people where they are so your message can be heard. Be creative. Make a Tik Tok or YouTube video if that will better reach your target audience.

10. Learn how to combat misinformation

To help combat infodemics, health communicators must become adept at spotting misinformation. You must be able to identify the enemy to fight the enemy successfully. This article in Nature provides 8 great tips on spotting misinformation that is useful for all health communicators.

Infodemics can be costly and life-threatening, especially during a public health emergency. As health communicators, we can play a role in combatting infodemics by providing accurate, quality information to the public. So, follow the above tips to help you navigate an infodemic and ultimately help protect public health.

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