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SocietySeptember 8, 2020

Siouxsie Wiles & Toby Morris: Now let’s flatten the infodemic curve

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It’s likely you’re being exposed to masses of Covid information on a daily basis, and not all of it will be reliable. Here are some tips for telling the difference, and stopping the spread.

Thanks to Covid-19, most of us have a new word in our vocabulary. Epidemiology: the branch of medical science that deals with the who, what, when, where and how of a disease in a population. Now it’s time to learn about infodemiology.

We humans are a curious and innovative species. We want to understand the world around us and help solve the challenges we face. One of the ways we do this is by seeking out and sharing information. Lots of information. This means that at the same time as experiencing a pandemic, the world is also experiencing an “infodemic” – the overabundance of information that happens during an outbreak or epidemic. I know I’m struggling to keep up with the thousands of scientific studies that have come out since Covid-19 appeared.

But, of course, it’s not just scientific studies. There are also all the official communications from governments and health agencies here and around the world. Then there are the news articles and opinion pieces. And what about the vloggers, bloggers and podcasters? Or the social media influencers? Chances are, you’re also seeing information shared by friends and family on social media platforms or messaging apps. All of this is the infodemic. And infodemiology is the study of that information and how to manage it.

Information, misinformation and disinformation

The first step to understanding the infodemic is to learn the difference between information, misinformation and disinformation. It’s highly likely that you’re being exposed to all of these on a daily basis. I’ll explain the difference in a moment. But before I get to that, the second most important thing to understand is how social media algorithms are likely skewing how much of each you are being exposed to. Check out Eli Pariser’s TED talk. It’s well worth the eight minutes, I promise.

The TLDR version is that social media algorithms are designed to show you what they want you to see and/or what they think you want to see. For example, there are heaps of studies that have found the algorithms are designed to push people with more benign views into beliefs that are closer to white supremacy while they’re researching things online. That then pulls people into a more polarised position, all while they think they’ve “done their research” on a topic.

Back to information, misinformation and disinformation. So, information is what we are going to call things that are accurate to the best of our current knowledge. Like that Covid-19 stands for coronavirus disease 2019 and it’s the disease caused by the virus SARS-CoV-2 that is causing a global pandemic. One of the things that’s hard during a pandemic like this is that some of the information is changing as we learn more about this new virus. That’s fundamentally how science works. But it normally doesn’t play out quite so fast and in public.

Misinformation, on the other hand, is false information. But importantly, it’s false information that wasn’t created with the intention of hurting others. Often this type of information is started by someone who genuinely cares about keeping other people safe and well. And then it’s shared by others who want to keep their friends and family safe and well. Everyone believes that they’re sharing good information but unfortunately, they are not. And depending on what’s being shared, the misinformation can turn out to be quite harmful.

At the other end of the spectrum is disinformation. Unlike misinformation, this is false information that is created with the intention of causing harm. That harm could be to a person, or group of people, or to an organisation or even a country. Disinformation generally serves some agenda and can be incredibly dangerous. During this pandemic, we are seeing it being used to try to erode our trust in each other and in our government and public institutions.

One thing that has been really distressing to see is misinformation and disinformation being spread by medical doctors and people with PhDs. Some of them have even had support from PR companies to do that.

Time to practise some information hygiene

Given how much we’ve all learnt about how viruses spread, I think it helps to think of misinformation and disinformation the same way. In other words, they can spread exponentially. We humans are hard-wired to share alarming and emotive information. Social media platforms have been designed to both encourage our natural tendencies and to exploit them to make money. Think about it. One person spreads something to each of their friends or family members, and then a handful of them share it with more of their friends and family, and before you know it, potentially harmful or dangerous information is permeating everyone’s newsfeed.

But just like hand washing, physical distancing and masks can protect us from Covid-19, we can slow down the spread of misinformation and disinformation by practising some information hygiene. So please, before sharing something, ask yourself these questions:

How does this make me feel?

Why am I sharing this?

Do I know if it’s true?

Where did it come from?

Whose agenda might I be supporting by sharing it?

If you know something is false, please don’t share it to debunk it or make fun of it. That just spreads the misinformation or disinformation further. Same if you are angry or outraged. Consider these red lights.

Here in Aotearoa New Zealand, the official Unite against Covid-19 and the Ministry of Health websites are good places to go for reliable information. Remember what I said earlier though – information will change as we learn more about the virus. If you want something that isn’t an official government source, then obviously I recommend you follow what Toby Morris and I do here and here. And, yes, I’m well aware of the irony of that recommendation.

Keep going!