When pandemics like the coronavirus (COVID-19) strike, authorities and governments are often fighting on two fronts. The first: understanding the virus, researching a cure and isolating infected populations. The second is the avalanche of fake news, rumours and lies posted by thousands across the internet – the accompanying “infodemic”.
According to cybersecurity multinational Check Point, coronavirus-themed domains are 50% more likely to be malicious than other domains. Experts suggest that while there is little evidence of mass-coordinated fake news campaigns, the biggest contributor to the infodemic is speculation and online rumours originating from online platforms and social media.
“The most unique — and perhaps most frightening — aspect of COVID-19 is the way information about the epidemic has spread through the internet, and social media in particular,” said Landon Myer, director of the School of Public Health & Family Medicine at the University of Cape Town. “The notion of an infodemic is quite apt, as the rumour, panic and fear it fuels has a far greater reach than the virus itself.”
Laura Garcia, who works for non-profit organisation First Draft — a global non-profit that supports journalists, academics and technologists addressing challenges relating to misinformation in the digital age – says understanding the environment in which misinformation is disseminated is extremely important.
First Draft coined the term “information disorder”, which refers to the ways in which the environment we absorb information from is polluted. “Most of the information isn’t even fake; it’s often genuine, used out of context and weaponised by people who know that falsehoods based on an ounce of truth are more likely to be believed and shared,” explains Garcia.
Twitter is a huge offender. From early in the pandemic, the platform was full of users circulating rumours from second and third hand sources. In the UK, for example, they claimed falsely that that a military takeover of London was imminent.
Fight back with facts
So what can government do?
“I believe having an efficient national communication strategy is vital: this means the public knows where they can turn to for official information from the government,” says Professor Yik-Ying Teo, Dean of the Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health at the National University of Singapore.
He suggests a three-point approach: information, practice, and containment. “The public needs daily updates through one official channel on what the current status of COVID-19 is in the country; the best practices it should adopt in terms of hygiene and social distancing; and the current enforcement measures in place.”
Teaming up with health experts to provide solid factual backing to updates – whether they are public health practitioners, doctors or academics – can also aid in getting the public to trust and follow government updates, rather than what they see on social media.
“This can help to dispel any fake news or misinformation that is circulating on social media,” says Teo. “Experts can play their part in helping to break the chain of onward transmission when it comes to viral fake news.”
The right shape
The way in which information is shared, as well as the how, is key. Where making sure a national communication strategy is both informative, based on fact, and supported by credible professionals, its shape and digestibility for the public is just as important. Garcia suggests clear and precise language should always be at the forefront of informing the public.
“The problem with not giving clear direction and instruction and keeping things vague is that it creates an information void for people to fill,” Garcia said.
“People want to feel safe; they fill that void with their own facts – if those facts are from a WhatsApp chat they received, then they’ll use it,” she says.
Simple graphics to illustrate both the urgency and seriousness of a pandemic are also a good way of providing a visual aspect to communication efforts. Garcia suggests a graphic published by The Washington Post, which shows two hundred randomly moving blue dots with one orange “sick” dot infecting all the others is a good example of this.
Additionally, public servants and governments should position themselves as the consumer when communicating about a pandemic. “Think about what people type into the Google browser, and then answer the questions that you think might be asked,” says Garcia. “People want to ask whether their loved ones are okay, so answer their question.”
Ultimately, the way in which governments and public bodies communicate is of paramount importance during the age of a pandemic, and countering infodemics through use of clear and empathetic communication can not only break the chain of misinformation, but save lives.
“If public servants communicate regularly and engage, it helps undermine the very foundation that allows misinformation to thrive, and in turn,” concludes Myer. “Helps public sector agencies accomplish their goals in epidemic containment and mitigation.”