The COVID-19 Infodemic
“We’re not just fighting a pandemic; we’re fighting an infodemic,” said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO’s director-general, at the 2020 Munich Security Conference. Fake news, misinformation, and conspiracy theories have become prevalent in the age of social media and have skyrocketed since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. This situation is extremely concerning because it undermines trust in health institutions and programmes. On June 29, WHO formally began the conversation on the global effects and management of infodemics with its 1st Infodemiology Conference that convened international experts from diverse scientific and political backgrounds.
Immediate and widespread sharing of medical and other scientific information outside of expert circles before it has been thoroughly vetted (eg, preprints) can be dangerous, especially in a pandemic. A pandemic is a rapidly evolving setting, in which researchers and medical professionals are constantly learning and contributing to dynamic adjustments in government policy. Compounding this information vortex is the fact that governments rarely make policy decisions solely based on empirical evidence; political interest is key, and the two are frequently at odds. Governments want to be perceived as being in control and are too quick to provide false reassurances, as Saad Omer, director of the Yale Institute for Global Health, pointed out in one of his Infodemiology Conference talks. Consequently, incoherent government messaging and reversals in recommendations based on newly emerging evidence on whether masks are protective against transmission can be misconstrued as incompetence. Comparisons have been drawn between solid leadership based on clear communication, empathy, and alignment of science and politics, such as that shown by New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern or German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and shambolic, self-serving, and sometimes deliberately misleading reactions, such as those of US President Donald Trump or Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. Such miscommunication is not helped by mass media, which are often guilty of favouring quick, sensationalist reporting rather than carefully worded scientific messages with a balanced interpretation. The outcome is erosion of public trust and a sense of helplessness, the perfect conditions for the spread of harmful misinformation that begins a vicious circle.
Managing the COVID-19 infodemic: Promoting healthy behaviours and mitigating the harm from misinformation and disinformation
The Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) is the first pandemic in history in which technology and social media are being used on a massive scale to keep people safe, informed, productive and connected. At the same time, the technology we rely on to keep connected and informed is enabling and amplifying an infodemic that continues to undermine the global response and jeopardizes measures to control the pandemic.
An infodemic is an overabundance of information, both online and offline. It includes deliberate attempts to disseminate wrong information to undermine the public health response and advance alternative agendas of groups or individuals. Mis- and disinformation can be harmful to people’s physical and mental health; increase stigmatization; threaten precious health gains; and lead to poor observance of public health measures, thus reducing their effectiveness and endangering countries’ ability to stop the pandemic.
Misinformation costs lives. Without the appropriate trust and correct information, diagnostic tests go unused, immunization campaigns (or campaigns to promote effective vaccines) will not meet their targets, and the virus will continue to thrive. Furthermore, disinformation is polarizing public debate on topics related to COVID-19; amplifying hate speech; heightening the risk of conflict, violence and human rights violations; and threatening long-terms prospects for advancing democracy, human rights and social cohesion.
In this context, the UN Secretary- General launched the United Nations Communications Response initiative to combat the spread of mis- and disinformation in April 2020. The UN also issued a Guidance Note on Addressing and Countering COVID-19 related Hate Speech (11 May 2020).
In May 2020, WHO Member States passed Resolution WHA73.1 on the COVID-19 response at the World Health Assembly. The Resolution recognizes that managing the infodemic is a critical part of controlling the COVID-19 pandemic: it calls on Member States to provide reliable COVID-19 content, take measures to counter mis- and disinformation and leverage digital technologies across the response. The Resolution also calls on international organizations to address mis- and disinformation in the digital sphere, work to prevent harmful cyber activities undermining the health response and support the provision of science-based data to the public.
The UN system and civil society organizations are using their collective expertise and knowledge to respond to the infodemic. At the same time, as the pandemic continues to create uncertainty and anxiety, there is an urgent need for stronger action to manage the infodemic, and for a coordinated approach among states, multi-lateral organizations, civil society and all other actors who have a clear role and responsibility in combatting mis- and disinformation. We call on Member States to develop and implement action plans to manage the infodemic by promoting the timely dissemination of accurate information, based on science and evidence, to all communities, and in particular high-risk groups; and preventing the spread, and combating, mis- and disinformation while respecting freedom of expression. We urge Member States to engage and listen to their communities as they develop their national action plans and empower communities to develop solutions and resilience against mis- and disinformation.