Feb 25, 2020 - Health

Coronavirus "infodemic" threatens world's health institutions

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The spread of the novel coronavirus outbreak is being matched, or even outrun, by the spread on social media of both unintentional misinformation about it and vociferous campaigns of malicious disinformation, experts tell Axios.

Why it matters: The tide of bad information is undermining trust in governments, global health organizations, nonprofits and scientists — the very institutions that many believe are needed to organize a global response to what may be turning into a pandemic.

Background: Since China reported unusual pneumonia-like cases to the World Health Organization on Dec. 31, the novel coronavirus has spread to at least 31 other countries or territories, killing around 2,700 and infecting over 80,000 so far.

Trust in public institutions and in science is key to global public health — and for the most part, many countries still retain this trust, per Wellcome Global Monitor. But even this survey pointed out several months ago that misinformation on social media is itself a "real infection."

  • And — because this particular outbreak is caused by a new virus with lots of scientific and medical unknowns — there's a higher level of fear added to the equation.
  • This combined with increased social media savvy has created an "infodemic," according to WHO's director general. Another top WHO official recently said, "We need a vaccine against misinformation."
  • Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, tells Axios that it's "painful" to read some of the misinformation out there, ranging from fake garlic treatments, to shoddy non-peer-reviewed science studies, to conspiracy theories that the virus was engineered as a bioweapon.
  • "It does speak to a deep human need to find order and rationality when bad things happen," Moreno says.

What's happening: "People are very concerned about the coronavirus for a very good reason, [as] it's likely to turn into a pandemic," University of Washington professor Carl Bergstrom tells Axios.

  • But this is one of the first times the public has been able to see news unfolding about the spread of an epidemic in near real-time, he says.
  • Most could find better information if they allowed 12 hours of verification to occur, but social media platforms are driven by clicks and encourage fast proliferation, Bergstrom points out.
  • This is compounded by recent findings that false news can reach more people, faster, than true news.

Three main actors are driving misinformation: People trying to inform their friends and family without vetting the information; entities aiming to harm China's ruling government; and "longer-term actors in the disinformation space that find this an extremely useful vehicle ... to undermine trust in governments, NGOs and fact-based media," Bergstrom says.

  • These include Russian and others' trolls or information bots that deliberately rile up anger and confusion because that leads to countries losing "the ability to conduct any kind of effective democratic government," Bergstrom adds.
  • "If you put out a lot of mutually contradictory misinformation, people will [eventually] give up believing in their ability to find the truth," he says.
  • His UW colleague Jevin West, who says there's an "information vacuum," also points out, "Propagandists and opportunists make money off these situations."

Big Tech's response has been to "put a band-aid on a grave wound" they inflicted upon themselves, Bergstrom says.

  • While Facebook and Twitter are taking some actions, "which are better than nothing," the main problems won't change until the entire apparatus geared toward earning profits from clicks and fast proliferation is ended, he says.

The other side: Twitter and Facebook say they are taking steps to place "authoritative information" up top, although West says it's still pretty easy to "go down the rabbit hole" to conspiracy theories. YouTube did not respond before publication.

  • Twitter tells Axios they have a plan for "helping the world find credible information," and added they're not seeing an uptick in coordinated disinformation.
  • In addition, Twitter says it has expanded their search prompt feature for #coronavirus to prioritize authoritative health info in Australia, Brazil, Canada, Hong Kong, Japan, Malaysia, New Zealand, Philippines, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, U.S., U.K., Ireland, Denmark, Belgium, Sweden, Germany, Italy, France, Spain and Vietnam.
  • Facebook says its plan limits the spread of misinformation and harmful content and that it works with groups like WHO to connect people to authoritative sources. It's now removing content that violates their community standards — specifically, content with false claims such as false cures or with conspiracy theories designed to discourage treatment or taking appropriate precautions.
  • Facebook also tells Axios it's now providing ad credits to WHO and ministries of health across Southeast Asia, including in Thailand, Hong Kong, Japan, Indonesia, and the Philippines, to enable them to run coronavirus education campaigns.

What's next: Various organizations are trying to fight panic with information.

Go deeper: Follow the latest coronavirus developments here.

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