Shortly after declaring the outbreak of COVID-19 a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC), WHO’s Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus warned of the threat of an “infodemic” – an overabundance of information, some of which can be misleading or even harmful.
This vast amount of information can be damaging for people’s health in several ways. It can:
- make it difficult to identify accurate, evidence-based public health information and advice;
- contribute to anxiety, worry and other mental health issues because of its quantity, accessibility and visibility everywhere;
- lead people to take misleading or even dangerous advice;
- build fatigue, disinterest and animosity towards public health messages; and
- encourage xenophobia, hate and exclusion.
Tackling this threat for current and future generations is part of WHO’s broader investment in risk communication and community engagement in preparedness and response over time. WHO is hosting its first Global Infodemiology Conference, starting on 29 June 2020, to identify examples and tools to help manage infodemics and establish a community of practice and research.
Communication as a public health intervention
It has never been clearer that communication is an important public health intervention that contributes to controlling pandemics alongside epidemiology, virology and clinical management. The more people trust health authorities, the more they comply with health protection guidance and adopt protective behaviours that help control the COVID-19 pandemic nationally and globally.
Some factors can jeopardize trust, including delayed and unclear communication, inconsistency, and the infodemic.
The most damaging aspect of the infodemic has been false and misleading information from non-health actors. This has led to dangerous and unproven claims being shared.
Because the virus that causes COVID-19 was only identified a few months ago, scientific understanding is growing day by day. This means that recommendations may change as more evidence comes to light. Unless this is clearly communicated, uncertainty and doubt can grow regarding the advice provided and the institutions offering such information.
Change management and communication need to make clear that as research develops over time, clarity increases and best practices develop. This approach increases the likelihood that changes will be incorporated smoothly into national advice and guidance.
The threats posed by infodemics are wide-ranging. In addition to the implications for individual health, they can stoke xenophobia, hate and exclusion, which may have long-term impacts on public health and human rights.
Furthermore, a recent study by the Reuters Institute on English-language misinformation on COVID-19 found that between January and March 2020, 39% of the misinformation assessed included false claims about the actions or policies of authorities, including governments and international bodies such as WHO. This suggests that the authority and trustworthiness of official bodies are being undermined through the infodemic.
In order to tackle this trend, governments, organizations and authorities need to act transparently and consensually to build trust with the public. This can be achieved with regular, open engagement as well as dynamic partnerships.
WHO/Europe has worked closely with other organizations to communicate more openly, for example, by partnering with digital platforms, joining forces with the Global Shapers Community, launching the chatbot HealthBuddy, and holding regular virtual press briefings with journalists.
An all-of-society responsibility
It is everyone’s responsibility to amplify reliable, evidence-based information. Earlier this month, the United Nations Secretary-General presented a set of recommended actions to ensure that everyone is “connected, respected and protected in the digital age”. Tools have been developed that can help Member States combat the infodemic. It is vital that countries become more proficient in their knowledge and use of these tools to effectively manage infodemics.
WHO echoed this in its resolution on COVID-19, adopted at this year’s World Health Assembly, which calls on countries, international organizations and others to prevent the proliferation of both disinformation and misinformation.