Editor’s Note: This series is produced in partnership with the World Health Organization (WHO).
Rumours, fake news and conspiracy theories have spread faster and more easily than the coronavirus, forcing health experts to combat not just the pandemic, but an “unprecedented” epidemic of misinformation.
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“Harmful health advice and snake-oil solutions are proliferating,” Antonio Guterres, the United Nations Secretary-General, warned in April. “Falsehoods are filling the airwaves. Wild conspiracy theories are infecting the internet. Hatred is going viral, stigmatising and vilifying people and groups. The world must unite against this disease, too.”
The dangerous effect of such falsehoods quickly revealed itself. Following incidents of people using deceptively marketed “miracle cures” – such as drinking methanol or cleaning products – about 800 people died globally while nearly 6,000 were admitted to hospitals in the first three months of this year, according to a study led by the American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene.
Meanwhile, the social consequences of rumours have stretched beyond people’s health. Since the beginning of the pandemic, anti-Asian racism has risen on the streets of Australia, India, the United States and the United Kingdom. More than 1,100 reports collected by the Asian Pacific Policy and Planning Council and Chinese for Affirmative Action showed incidents of hate directed primarily at Asian Americans.
Just as #COVID19 has spread around the 🌍, so too have rumours, untruths & disinformation – they can be just as dangerous.
We can bring the virus under control if people have accurate, timely information about the basic measures they can take to protect themselves & others. #UNGA https://t.co/I93WKrwS7M
— Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus (@DrTedros) September 23, 2020
Disinformation and distrust
“Disinformation is really dangerous, and it’s a concomitant phenomenon to every epidemic,” said Sylvie Briand, director of the Department of Global Infectious Hazard Preparedness at the WHO. She emphasised the differences between misinformation – which is generally shared innocently despite being incorrect – and disinformation, which is spread intentionally to push a specific agenda.
The proliferation of false information during health emergencies is not new. However, the use of social media nowadays, the interconnectedness of people across countries and the global scale of the pandemic – for which a biomedical solution has not yet been found – have sped up the spread of disinformation, directly affecting people’s behaviour.
“People make decisions based on a number of factors. Three elements: knowledge, their motivations and external opportunities are key,” explained Elena Altieri, a technical officer leading an initiative for behavioural insights and science at the WHO.
“And how do you form knowledge and skills? Largely through information, hence the ‘infodemic’ is attacking what is a number one source for people to be able to make decisions and to cope with the current situation,” she said, adding that as a result, people face increasing levels of pressure and uncertainty.
Agencies such as the WHO have had to cope with a further challenge: The novel nature of the disease forced health experts to adjust knowledge, and hence recommendations, each time new findings came to light.
This has often resulted in creating a sense of distrust, Briand explained: “All technical agencies have suffered from this because the pace of information is very fast and it takes time to verify scientific information – such time frame is unacceptable for many people, especially when they fear for their health.”
When people perceive that the risk of a disease may be low, they are less inclined to abide by the recommended safety measures, especially when health guidelines demand they adopt behaviours that are far from their common habits, such as social distancing and wearing face coverings.
To reverse this attitude, Briand says, it is important to not just disseminate the right information but to also find the right channel.
“Information needs to be tailored upon each audience and channelled through trusted sources which vary across countries; if people in a country trust certain experts, these experts are those who should talk about it,” she said.
💻 There's a lot of misinformation online about #COVID19.
Follow the steps in the video to help protect yourself and others from #coronavirus misinformation 👇
— WHO/Europe (@WHO_Europe) September 23, 2020
Reducing the gap between science and politics is also a key step in tackling the spread of the “infomedic”. Scientific knowledge needs to be translated into useful information to feed decision-making processes.
“Human beings are subject to a lot of intrinsic and extrinsic biases and influences […] so we need to recognise this as a reality when we try to convey information,” said Altieri. “The challenge is to facilitate access to scientific evidence to make those data understandable to manage for the population.”
Misinformation spreads where there is a vacuum, so health experts had to move quickly to fill that space. The WHO set up collaborations with social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, and developed a new approach.
“We put science in front of the management of the ‘infodemic’ and we try to better understand not just the phenomenon – who spread it, how, and when – but also what we do about it in order to prevent its spread because intervention can make a difference,” Briand said.
But that is not enough. A fundamental component of any government’s attempt to curb the spread must lie with the citizens themselves. “Authorities have to provide spaces where people and communities can express their concerns, then they have to provide information in the right format, and then empower them because they can find solutions as well,” she added.