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Infodemiology: Fighting the fake news epidemic

whatsapp Copyright: dimarik16 / 123RF Stock Photo
Social media platforms such as WhatsApp provide an opportunity for misinformation to spread. Image credit: dimarik16 / 123RF

The discipline of infodemiology is accruing heightened attention during the COVID-19 pandemic – and for good reason. In an event as deadly as the COVID-19 outbreak, there can be no underestimation of the grave risk misinformation poses, nor can we afford to downplay the necessity of proactively working to mitigate the so-called ‘infodemic’. 

This was the topic of the inaugural World Health Organization (WHO) infodemiology conference. The conference was observed from June 29th to July 21st and followed by a webinar held earlier this week to outline the conference’s outcomes and the experiences of those who attended. “An infodemic cannot be eliminated but it can be managed,” the WHO asserts. “To respond effectively to infodemics, WHO has called for adaptation, development, validation and evaluation of new evidence-based measures and practices to prevent, detect and respond to mis- and disinformation.”

Whilst having gained heightened attention during the pandemic, infodemiology is not a new discipline. Numerous researchers and institutions, conscientious of the risk misinformation poses to public health, have spoken about infodemiology over the years, especially with the advent of digital media. Gunther Eyesenbach is credited with coining the term infodemiology, which he defined in a 2009 editorial as

“the science of distribution and determinants of information in an electronic medium, specifically the Internet, or in a population, with the ultimate aim to inform public health and public policy”

The Internet has effected seismic changes in how we receive information and how it spreads – particularly with the advent of social media. The uptake of social media is not solely a societal ill. Through the Internet, populations are able to access vital, potentially life-saving data swiftly. Governments the world over use social media to communicate vital messages about the pandemic and how to protect oneself and others during it. India is no exception, with leading figures using social platforms such as Twitter to articulate key messages, unveil new and important data, and appeal for calm and public unity. 

However, no reasonable person would argue that social media is free of its downsides – far from it. In the public health context, this predates the present pandemic. Social media, and the potential for misinformation to spread rapidly, breathed life into the modern anti-vaccination movement – one largely predicated on notoriously faulty and debunked research conducted more than two decades ago. 

In India, the widespread use of social media tools such as WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter and more has enabled myths surrounding public health and claims of dubious cures for any number of conditions to diffuse into the public consciousness. As Statista pointed out earlier this year, “multiple surveys and studies in recent years found that an overwhelming majority of people in the country access news primarily through social media where information rarely gets checked for validity and authenticity.” This has manifested during the COVID-19 pandemic, with India being a large progenitor of fake news about COVID-19 shared on WhatsApp and social media feeds being replete with unverified cures for the novel coronavirus and myths about its origins.

For public health – especially during a highly contagious and deadly pandemic – the ramifications of fake news are disastrous. And it cannot be denied that misinformation about health and the detriments of the infodemic to public health has roared to the fore during the COVID-19 pandemic. As pointed out in an article published in the Journal of Travel Medicine at the beginning of March

“Within weeks of the emergence of the novel coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) in China, misleading rumours and conspiracy theories about the origin circulated the globe paired with fearmongering, racism and mass purchase of face masks, all closely linked to the new ‘infomedia’ ecosystems of the 21st century marked by social media. A striking particularity of this crisis is the coincidence of virology and virality: not only did the virus itself spread very rapidly, but so did the information—and misinformation—about the outbreak and thus the panic that it created among the public. The social media panic travelled faster than the COVID-19 spread.”

Against this backdrop, it is clear why vigilance against the infodemic is so desperately needed – and the inaugural WHO infodemiology conference may well lay the foundation for a sustained movement to challenge fake news as it pertains to health and hold those who propagate it accountable. To be clear, the WHO is under no illusion: the infodemic can solely be contained, it cannot be averted or quashed altogether. But not attempting to mitigate its reach is not a risk the public health community can afford to take. 

With the infodemiology conference now having outlined clear action points (accessible here) for the community, it is incumbent upon all of us to play our part. Fact-checking the claims we make; thinking about the sources where we obtain our information and thinking critically about the information we receive; approaching and, if necessary, challenging family members and friends who share debunked information online; and reporting demonstrable incidents of misinformation on social media to the relevant moderators and fact-checking sources are all steps we can take in the face of the infodemic. 

Social media has its role to play in the fight against COVID-19. The Journal of Travel Medicine article points out as much, the authors writing “social media can and should be harnessed to support the public health response…digital technologies can overcome the social distancing constraints during mass quarantine and provide mental health support resources and solidarity with those persons in a lock-down situation. 

“A well-planned analysis of global online conversations could provide a rapid assessment of the spread and possible changes in public attitudes and behaviours (e.g. self-isolating, handwashing, accessing healthcare) and awareness about the disease and its symptoms and the impact of important decisions taken during the outbreak (e.g. quarantine measures, development of new vaccines, internationally coordinated responses) on public perceptions and attitudes.” 

For the benefits of social media to be effectively applied, its detriments must be tackled. To this end, foregrounding the best practices of infodemiology in the public health discourse is a must.

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