We must effectively manage infodemics to protect public health. An infodemic is essentially a mass of mis and disinformation that accompanies an epidemic. We are presently in the heights of an infodemic surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic.
Infodemics impact our beliefs and behaviours. They can be harmful to public health. Thankfully, the World Health Organisation (WHO) is tackling infodemics with an annual conference.
And according to Dr Michael Ryan, Executive Director, WHO Health Emergencies Programme, managing infodemics during an epidemic is just as important as personal protective equipment (PPE) or treatment.
Managing infodemics: WHO’s 3rd Global Infodemic Management Conference
The WHO is leading the global infodemic management process and is working diligently to make managing infodemics mainstream.
Consequently, the WHO hosted its 3rd Virtual Global Infodemic Management Conference from October 20, 2020, culminating in a live session on December 11, 2020.
During these six weeks, more than 5000 invited participants consulted through dialogues, workshops and webinars to identify challenges and solutions to the COVID-19 infodemic in six categories:
- Science and research
- Country health authorities
- Technology and platforms
- Civil society
- Media and journalism
- UN and multilateral
The live session saw stakeholders meeting to share the consultation results and committing to concrete actions for effectively managing infodemics.
The conference provided some valuable lessons that apply to all sectors and individuals. Here are the key takeaways for health communicators.
1. We need quality health communicators
Scientists are great at communicating the results of their work amongst themselves, but they’re not necessarily the best at writing clearly about COVID-19 or translating their work to the public. Health communication and patient education are specific skills that scientists need to learn.
As a result, health communicators are needed now more than ever. In fact, almost all the tracks pinpointed needs filled by health communicators. Here’s a summary of the key needs.
A better translation of science.
The civil society track highlighted the need for better science translation. Health communicators can and should look for opportunities to partner with civil society organisations to translate science for the people.
The science and research track also acknowledged that scientists need to work together with communicators and that scientists need to learn how to provide plain language summaries of their work.
How about reaching out to your former thesis supervisor to see whether they need a health communicator?
Explanation of how science works.
The constantly changing narrative is a feature of the COVID-19 pandemic that is contributing to public confusion. Explaining how science works could help curb this confusion. The science and research track highlighted this point.
Dr Siouxsie Wiles, from the University of Auckland, shared this quote from science journalist and author, Ed Jong.
Health communicators can help to fill this gap, explaining the scientific research process to the public in a way they understand.
Greater access to clear communicators to help understand the science from science and research.
The above headline was a call from the media and journalism track, who also said they needed support with training on how to communicate about health events and how to communicate uncertainties in the science.
The UN and multilateral track also suggested journalists need relevant training to recognise correct information and ignore misinformation. Do you hear a collaboration with media outlets calling?
Translation of science into other languages.
The UN and multilateral track recognised translation as a key need. Dr Miguel Luengo-Oroz, Chief Data Scientist at the UN Global Pulse, stated that of the 7000 languages in the world, only about 100 are in the digital space.
Translating science is a golden opportunity for health communicators who speak other languages, especially lesser-known languages internationally.
2. We need constant engagement
Professor Neville Calleja of the University of Malta, speaking on behalf of the country health authorities track, said that infodemic management is “the mother of all non-pharmaceutical interventions. Without it, other non-pharmaceutical interventions might fail because of non-compliance.”
He also emphasised that we need to promote accurate information and reduce harm from misinformation to engage the public.
The civil society track noted that managing infodemics is not just about the main post. When we have posted information, we need to look at the comments and engage the public to keep the discussion on the right track.
As a health communicator, do you practice going back and engaging the public in the comments after posting an article or video?
3. Transparency is essential
Building trust is the cornerstone of effectively fighting pandemics and epidemics. This trust also extends to managing infodemics. If you gain the public’s trust, people are more likely to believe what you say and follow your guidance.
Several tracks highlighted the need for communicators to be transparent, including to be transparent about what you do and don’t know.
4. Collaboration is a must
Everyone acknowledged that effectively managing infodemics is a collaborative effort. We have seen this collaboration lead to the fastest development of a vaccine in history.
Health communicators can seek opportunities to collaborate with scientists, the media and even other health communicators to get accurate information out to the public and counter covid-19 vaccine hesitancy.
The RESIST Counter Disinformation Toolkit shared by the UK government offers strategies to help you recognise and counter disinformation.
You can also read our blog on combatting infodemics for more tips.
5. Opportunities to help manage infodemics
The opportunities for health communicators who want to be involved in the global infodemic management movement include:
- Take the Infodemic Manager training – the WHO has already trained the first cohort of infodemic managers. The second cohort’s call will go out next year, so be on the lookout for that.
- Subscribe to the news flash newsletter – to follow the latest tips on managing infodemics, subscribe to the WHO’s news flash.
- Sign the call for action – show your commitment to the global fight “to promote access to health information and mitigate harm from health misinformation among online and offline communities” by signing the WHO’s call for action by February 14, 2021.
- Attend the next infodemic management conference – the next conference is on February 15, 2021. Save the date!
Some final points on managing infodemics
Dr Sylvie Briand, WHO’s Director of Global Infectious Hazard Preparedness (GIH), wrapped up the conference by summarising what we need for effective infodemic management:
- Listen – to peers, communities, religious groups, etc.
- Communication – high-quality information and two-way dialogue are essential.
- Debunk myths – fact checkers can help to keep track of mis and disinformation.
- Engage – involve different types of communities and encourage them to find their solutions.
- Partnering – work together and collaborate, as no one has all the answers!
Importantly, managing misinformation is not about censoring – it’s about sharing the right information.
An infodemic is a public health issue. We all have a part to play in managing infodemics.
Get the full recordings of the WHO’S managing infodemic conference here.