An "infodemic" of misinformation and disinformation has helped cripple the response to the novel coronavirus. To beat the infodemic, we need to practice information distancing to go with social distancing.
High-powered social media accelerates the spread of lies and political polarization that motivates people to believe them. Unless the public health sphere can effectively counter misinformation, not even an effective vaccine may be enough to end the pandemic.
This month the WHO is running the first "infodemiology" conference, to study the infodemic of misinformation and disinformation around the coronavirus.
While fake news is anything but new, the difference is the infodemic "can kill people if they don't understand what precautions to take," says Phil Howard, director of the Oxford Internet Institute and author of the new book "Lie Machines."
- Beyond its effect on individuals, the infodemic erodes
trust in government and science at the moment when that trust is most
- A study by the Reuters Institute
found 39% of English-language misinformation assessed between January
and March included false claims about the actions or policies of
The infodemic has spread nearly as widely as the pandemic itself in the U.S.
- As early as March, about half of surveyed Americans reported they had encountered at least some completely made-up news about the pandemic.
- 38% of Americans surveyed by Pew
in June said that compared to the first couple of weeks of the
pandemic, they found it harder to identify what was true and what was
false about the virus.
- In that same survey, roughly a third of
Americans exposed to a conspiracy theory that the COVID-19 outbreak was
intentionally unleashed by people in power said that they saw some truth
disinformation have always been a destabilizing feature of infectious
disease outbreaks. But several factors have made the situation worse
- An evolving outbreak: COVID-19 is new, and as scientists have learned more about the virus, they've had to change recommendations.
That's how science works, but "if you're distrustful of authorities, an
expert taking a position different than it was three days ago just
confirms your bias," says Joe Smyser, CEO of the Public Good Projects.
- Social media: While experts give some credit to companies like Facebook and Twitter for their efforts to stem the spread
of coronavirus misinformation, the reality is that platforms built on
engagement will often end up as conduits of conspiracy content, which
Howard notes tends to be unusually "sticky." A review by the Reuters Institute
of 225 pieces of misinformation spread by political figures and
celebrities made up only 20% of the sample but accounted for 69% of
- Disinformation warfare: In June, the European Commission issued a joint communication
blaming Russia and China for "targeted influence operations and
disinformation campaigns around COVID-19 in the EU." And those campaigns
are effective — in a recent study,
Howard found disinformation from Russian and Chinese state sources
often reached a bigger audience on social media in Europe than reporting
by major domestic outlets.
- Political and media polarization: "In
our hyper-polarized and politicized climate, many folks just inherently
mistrust advice or evidence that comes from an opposing political
party," notes Alison Buttenheim of the University of Pennsylvania School
of Nursing. Conservatives are particularly vulnerable — an April study
found Americans who relied on conservative media were more likely to
believe conspiracy theories and rumors about the coronavirus.
Public health experts must
take an active role in combatting the infodemic, says Timothy
Caulfield, research director of the University of Alberta's Health Law
- One example is the "Nerdy Girls,"
an all-female team of experts who spread accurate information about the
pandemic on social media in a way that aims to "engender trust," says
Buttenheim, one of the group's members.
- Individuals can do their
part by practicing information distancing as well as social distancing.
"If you can just nudge people to pause before they share on social
media, you can actually decrease the spread of misinformation," says
What to watch: Whether the infodemic causes a significant chunk of the U.S. public to opt-out of a future COVID-19 vaccine.
- In a CNN poll in May,
a third of Americans said they would not try to get vaccinated against
COVID-19. If that proportion holds or rises, a vaccine would be
"unlikely" to provide herd immunity, warns Anthony Fauci.
highly-organized and internet-savvy anti-vaxxer community is already
targeting a potential COVID-19 vaccine. That includes attending Black
Lives Matter events to convince protesters that "vaccines are part of
structural racism," says Smyser.
The bottom line
the pandemic wasn't human-made, the infodemic surely is. But that means
public health experts and the public itself can put a halt to it with
the right strategy.