The coronavirus ‘infodemic’

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As the coronavirus spreads, so too does misinformation. This blog will show how social media is both fanning the fire – and being used to tackle the outbreak.

“This is a real WHO public announcement,” said my friend in a WhatsApp message in the early days of the coronavirus outbreak. 

She had sent a screenshot of what appeared to be an official World Health Organisation (WHO) infographic titled; ‘Reduce your risk of coronavirus infection.’ It had the official logo, brand colours and icons typical of many WHO social media graphics. Everything looked legitimate except the final sentence. ‘Avoid unprotected sex with live wild or farm animals.’ 

A screenshot of an altered World Health Organisation coronavirus graphic. The doctored information says that to avoid coronavirus, 'Avoid unprotected sex with live wild or farm animals.'
A screenshot of an altered World Health Organisation coronavirus graphic.

“FAKE NEWS” I replied confidently, though I have to admit, I wasn’t sure until I double checked the official graphic on the WHO website

Since novel coronavirus was first identified in Wuhan, China this year, the world has scrambled to contain – and control the facts around it. The sheer amount of information flooding social media and the wider web has led to the WHO labeling the outbreak as an ‘Infodemic’.

Since the outbreak, there have been millions of social media posts and articles about coronavirus. In the early days of the outbreak, when information was repressed and little was known about the causes and effects of the disease, the information vacuum was rapidly filled with rumours. Even as more has become known about how to contain and control coronavirus, official voices risked being drowned out by the sheer number of alternative information sources. This has included a host of hoaxes and misinformation which can even cause experts to double take. 

As the lead organisation dealing with the outbreak, the WHO is understandably worried about the spread of misinformation. In a recent interview with the Lancet, Sylvie Briand, a director at the WHO’s Health Emergencies Programme said; “We know that every outbreak will be accompanied by a kind of tsunami of information, but also within this information you always have misinformation, rumours, etc. We know that even in the Middle Ages there was this phenomenon”.

“But the difference now with social media is that this phenomenon is amplified, it goes faster and further…So it is a new challenge, and the challenge is the [timing] because you need to be faster if you want to fill the void” 

In addition to harnessing the vocal Twitter account of Dr. Tedros, the WHO is using its website and social media accounts to provide a centralised source of information – and confront common myths including whether garlic can protect you from the virus (it doesn’t) or whether it’s safe to touch packages from China (it is). Behind the scenes, the WHO’s EPI-WIN  is engaging with influencers in the business, health and government sectors to reach affected people with timely, accurate information. 

A World Health Organisation infographic on how garlic doesn't prevent coronavirus.
A World Health Organisation infographic on how garlic doesn’t prevent coronavirus.

Tackling misinformation through social media companies is vital too. Facebook is stepping up on it’s responsibilities by contracting a network of third-party fact-checkers to flag fake coronavirus content in order to remove or limit reach. Facebook joins Twitter, Google (and YouTube) in using algorithms to proactively provide people already searching for information on coronavirus with trusted sources such relevant to their location such as the WHO or national public health institutions. So when you search #coronavirus on Twitter in the US, you served up a button directing you to the Centre of Disease Control to ‘know the facts’. 

A pop-up on Twitter telling people to 'know the facts' while searching for coronavirus information on Twitter - by going to the US Centre for Disease control website.
A pop-up on Twitter telling people to ‘know the facts’.

Traditional media outlets are still playing an important role in providing people with accurate information about the outbreak through their huge online reach. Much of this depends on them sourcing their information from the WHO – though some less scrupulous outlets can give out incorrect advice or give voice to conspiracy theories. One well documented example is of a US Senator’s view that the virus had started in a Chinese bio-lab instead of a food market. Such fringe theories, debunked by scientists, have helped fan misinformation – but also coronavirus related xenophobia and discrimination covered in an earlier Sensory Activist blog by Celia Barahona; “I am not a virus, I am a human being.

Opinions and knowledge are actively shaped by what you read, who you follow and where you go to verify the information you receive. Efforts from the WHO, traditional media and social media channels show that in the fight against misinformation, what you see is sometimes as important as what you don’t.

Find out the facts about coronavirus by visiting the WHO website.

Author: Samuel Waterton

Sam Waterton is a UNICEF Communications Officer in New York specialising in social media. His current campaigns advocate for the protection of children affected by conflict, natural disasters, public health emergencies and climate change. Previously, Sam worked as a Digital Editor in London at BBC Media Action. In addition to studying for a masters in Communication for Development, Sam holds a bachelor's degree in International Relations. He is interested in harnessing social media for C4D, environmental and social justice issues.

4 thoughts on “The coronavirus ‘infodemic’”

  1. Interesting read, Sam! And so timely. I hadn’t heard the term “infodemic” before but it describes the problem so well: When dis- or misinformation triggers panic reactions or xenophobia, that might become a bigger problem than the epidemic itself. I find it remarkable what people are willing to believe although the “fake news” concept is so well known by now. It’s good to see that WHO and Social Media companies are trying to counter those rumors. A big compliment to you and your group for this site’s concept and all your great articles.
    Cheers, Christina (nudged.info)

    1. Thanks for your comment! We live in an age where there’s so much information that I think often people get overwhelmed. It’s much easier to share something that appears legit in order to feel useful, than to do a deep dive on what all the experts are saying. I’m very thankful for WHO for all the work they are doing. The more people using their website as a fact-checking source, the better.

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