|“Effective communication during epidemics and outbreaks is a critical component of a public health response. Even more than usual, people need accurate information so that they can adapt their behavior and protect themselves, their families, and their communities against infection, onward transmission, and death. However, during an epidemic or pandemic, the communication environment can be complicated by an ‘infodemic,’ which is the rapid, large-scale spread of health information and misinformation through a variety of media and informational channels.”|
The above statement, from an article written in the Journal of Health Security in February 2021, succinctly sums up the problem of misinformation in the case of health emergencies.(1)
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), however, misinformation can do more than complicate the communication flow. Acting on the wrong information can kill.
|Getting the terms straight|
|Misinformation||False, inaccurate, or misleading information that is communicated regardless of an intention to deceive (source)|
|Disinformation||Deliberately misleading or biased information; manipulated narrative or facts; propaganda (source)|
|Myths||A piece of information that is objectively untrue (source)|
|Rumors||Talk or opinion widely disseminated with no discernible source (source)|
|Infodemic||A rapid and far-reaching spread of both accurate and inaccurate information about something, such as a disease (source)|
Misinformation is not new
While the COVID-19 pandemic is occurring at a time when billions of people obtain their information from social media, the “infodemic,” or the far-reaching spread of misleading misinformation, is not new. (See Table at right for definitions of various types of “misinformation.”).
A 2006 International Red Cross report from Angola about its cholera epidemic noted that many believed it was caused by evil spirits and therefore stayed at home, dying because of their belief in the myth. As reported by Full Fact, “during the 2015 Zika outbreak, a post claiming that it was a man-made virus received over half a million views […]. When Ebola swept across West Africa from 2013 to 2016, unfounded rumors that medical staff were carriers of the disease dissuaded many from turning to treatment centers, leading to home remedies that thwarted efforts of containment, and even attacks on health facilities.” (2)
Access to an overabundance of information and misinformation
While misinformation has a long history, access to all types of information is unprecedented in today’s world: “social network platforms almost tripled their total user base in the last decade, from 970 million in 2010 to the number passing 3.81 billion users in 2020. (3)”
This access helps millions around the world gain access to accurate guidance about prevention, testing, and vaccination about infectious diseases, but the opposite is also true. The preponderance of misinformation and rumors persists; at the same time experts have developed a wide array of tools for dealing with this phenomenon, encouraging healthy behavior, and educating the public about the facts and accepted guidance. WHO even coined the word “infodemic” to describe this situation.
As WHO states,
|“…the technology we rely on to keep connected and informed is enabling and amplifying an infodemic that continues to undermine the global response and jeopardizes measures to control the pandemic. An infodemic is an overabundance of information, both online and offline. It includes deliberate attempts to disseminate wrong information to undermine the public health response and advance alternative agendas of groups or individuals. Mis- and disinformation can be harmful to people’s physical and mental health; increase stigmatization; threaten precious health gains; and lead to poor observance of public health measures, thus reducing their effectiveness and endangering countries’ ability to stop the pandemic.”|
Misinformation and COVID-19
The most recent example of “misinformation can kill” occurred in just the first three months of 2020, states WHO, when “nearly 6,000 people around the globe were hospitalized because of coronavirus misinformation […]. During this period, researchers say at least 800 people may have died due to misinformation related to COVID-19.”
The Role of Social and Behavior Change (SBC)
Social and behavior change (SBC) professionals find themselves working in risk communication and community engagement when dealing with a pandemic or any disease outbreak. They must not only communicate effective, engaging, and correct information about infectious diseases but also simultaneously disprove hundreds, if not thousands, of rumors about the disease. For example, as reported in Internews, as of July 2020, only a few months after the global outbreak of COVID-19, “the project [had] collected close to 20,000 rumorsfrom seven project countries.
SBC efforts can include working to:
- Communicate correct information
- Counter incorrect information
- Track and analyze rumors
- Create country-wide and/or local communication campaigns to combat misinformation
- Work with journalists to encourage fact-checking before printing possibly misleading/dangerous information
- Work with influencers on social media, traditional media, and community engagement to promote correct information
- Mobilize communities to educate community members and become anti-myth advocates
This Trending Topic provides tools and country-specific examples of dealing with infectious disease rumors. If you would like to contribute to this Trending Topic, please write to firstname.lastname@example.org, or upload your material.
- Sell, T. K., Hosangadi, D., Trotochaud, M., Purnat, T. D., Nguyen, T., & Briand, S.. (2021). Improving understanding of and response to infodemics during public health emergencies. Health Security, 19(1). https://doi.org/10.1089/hs.2021.0044
- Vicol, D. (2020). Health misinformation In Africa, Latin America and the UK: impacts and possible solutions [briefing]. Africa Check, chequeado, Full Fact. https://fullfact.org/media/uploads/en-tackling-health-misinfo.pdf
- Dean, B. (2021 Apr 26). Social network usage and growth statistics: How many people use social media in 2021?. Backlinko. https://backlinko.com/social-media-users#how-many-people-use-social-media
Banner photo by: Terje Skjerdal, Retrieved from Flickr