Misinformation in COVID times

Containing the coronavirus infodemic

Print edition : May 22, 2020

Andhra Pradesh Director General of Police Gautam Sawang launches a Whatsapp helpline no. to deal with social media abuse, fake news, derogatory trolling on media, in Guntur on April 15. Photo: T. VIJAYA_KUMAR

The spread of misinformation and unreliable information about COVID-19, facilitated largely by social media platforms, is perhaps more alarming than the pandemic itself.

Social media platforms have seen a surfeit of text and graphics relating to the coronavirus. Some messages go to the extent of saying that the virus was synthetically generated by scientists in Wuhan, China, and, therefore, people should refrain from eating Chinese food. Others include claims that pandemics arise out of electrification of the earth or that clapping of hands and lighting lamps would kill the virus. The facts that debunk these claims are just a Google search away, yet the convenience of sharing information with the touch of a button and the false pride that comes with being the virtual messiah who clears everyone’s doubt motivate people to share these messages without checking the facts.

Pseudoscience of this nature has proven to be dangerous during public health emergencies. The ebola outbreak in 2014 is an example of how wide sharing of false and misleading information led to low compliance with instructions from public health authorities and refusal to seek formal medical care¹. The COVID–19 pandemic is graver and more widespread than ebola and, so is the rate in spread of false news and disinformation.

With the progressive spread of an epidemic, the spread of misinformation of all kinds, including rumours, gossip and unreliable information increases², facilitated by the Internet. In public health terminology, this phenomenon is called “infodemic”. Monitoring and controlling infodemics is especially challenging in the context of the Indian population, which is not only one of the largest but also exceedingly diverse in terms of religion, caste, language and economic class. The belief systems followed by some segments of the population can cloud their understanding of a disease as complex and new as COVID-19. This gives rise to gaps in the public’s understanding of the broader science of the outbreak.

Although experimental drugs and a vaccine are in the pipeline, there is currently no definitive cure for the disease. As a consequence, bioscience academic journals have seen a surge in articles about the coronavirus, surrounding treatment, prevention and epidemiology, and many have committed to making research and data on COVID-19 freely available for the duration of the outbreak³. While this comes as a boon for the medical community, whether it is a net benefit to the general public is yet unclear. Laypeople may be able to access open source information about the disease, but it is unreasonable to expect that they will be able to comprehend the scientific language that even medical professionals sometimes find difficult to understand. The translation of journal articles that discuss deeply technical medical concepts and experimental results into the layperson’s language is a challenging task, particularly in India, which has more than 22 languages and 720 dialects. As a result, debunking of false claims lags behind the spread of the infodemic.

There is a need for information that is easily understood and, more importantly, relevant to the language skill, educational level and cultural context of each individual. By collaborating with trusted figures such as community leaders, religious figures and community health workers, authorities, experts and first-line response teams must quickly relay information to the public. Messages disseminated to the public must be supported by universally accepted guidelines and access to a reliable fact-checking source should be made available to the public to verify forward messages.

The capacity to transform technical information into action-oriented messages requires the rapid interpretation of a complex social, cultural, political and economic situation to tailor the messages and communication channels to the needs of a mass audience, as well as the management of the associated infodemic of fear, concerns, rumours and misinformation. These measures, while important, are irrelevant without adequate public health infrastructure and resources at the State level. As health authorities struggle to curtail the spread of the disease, people are overwhelmed by medical data that they cannot comprehend and deluded by stories that appeal to intellectual laziness over the more arduous pursuit of scientific truth. Addressing this gap between science and society requires that public health officials and leaders prioritise policies and strategies related to it. Let us not wait till the next pandemic occurs to strengthen our public health system and health communication strategies.

References

  1. 1. Vinck, P., Pham, P. N., Bindu, K. K., Bedford, J., & Nilles, E. J. (2019). Institutional trust and misinformation in the response to the 2018-19 ebola outbreak in North Kivu, DR Congo: a population-based survey. The Lancet Infectious Diseases, 19(5), 529-536.
  2. 2. World Health Organisation. (2018). Managing epidemics: key facts about major deadly diseases. World Health Organisation.
  3. 3. Journals Open Access to Coronavirus Resources. (2020, February 13). Retrieved from https://www.the-scientist.com/news-opinion/journals-open-access-to-coronavirus-resources-67105

Dr Nazeen Ali has a Masters in Health Administration and studies health related subjects from the perspectives of a practising physician and health administrator.

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