"The main purpose of this document is to offer recommendations to prevent the emergence and spread of misinformation in the course of a major infectious disease outbreak, and how misinformation can be corrected. Additionally, the document seeks to provide a background context in relation to the origins and persistent effect of misinformation and rumours in time. Finally, the document discusses key components of outbreak communication, such as presentation of scientific uncertainties and information gaps, and their role in the emergence of misinformation.
Addressing Rumors and Misinformation about Infectious Diseases
“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)|
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 rumors from 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
"Proliferating misinformation — even when the content is, in a best-case scenario, harmless — can have serious and even social and lethal health ramifications in the context of a global pandemic. In some countries, rumours about impending food scarcity prompted people to stockpile supplies early on in the epidemic and caused actual shortages."
Internews developed rumor tracking methodology in 2014 in Liberia during the Ebola outbreak. Since that time their teams have used rumor tracking in order to deal with misinformation during various crises, benefiting thousands of people.
"The internet has become a popular resource to learn about health and to investigate one's own health condition. However, given the large amount of inaccurate information online, people can easily become misinformed. Individuals have always obtained information from outside the formal health care system, so how has the internet changed people's engagement with health information?
This kit offers step-by-step guidance and templates to planning, choosing, setting up and managing a feedback and complaints system.
This manual provides concise and up-to-date knowledge on 15 infectious diseases which have the potential to become international threats, and tips on how to respond to each of them. Included are sections about risk communication and community engagement.
This article states that "a key part of the problem of misinformation is that the public is effectively presented with various sources of information, through different digital media platforms, sometimes from anonymous sources and other times from figures claiming to have some degree of authority or credibility. It can be difficult to discern fact from fiction. And most worryingly this happens with alarming regularity, and spurious claims can gain incredible traction with huge swathes of the public in matter of days, even hours."
"Following the first global infodemiology conference held in July 2020, WHO and partners coordinated a joint call for papers with five academic journals representing different scientific fields, all related to components of the science behind managing infodemics. [Early in 2021] the first of these academic journals published its special infodemic feature. The research findings contribute to filling the knowledge gap identified through the WHO public health research agenda for managing infodemics released [in February 2021]."
A BBC team tracked misinformation about COVID-19 and found that some of that misinformation led to violence against individuals, arson, and even deaths.
This tool was adapted from the CDAC Network’s Rumor has it: A practice guide to working with rumours, 2017. The tool consists of a table of guiding questions to help the user assess the potential consequences of a rumors, as well as illustrative rumors and examples of what the consequences of those rumors might be.
The Communicating with Disaster-Affected Communities Network (CDAC) is platform of more than 30 humanitarian, media development, social innovation, technology, and telecommunication organizations which was established to help save lives through effective communication and community engagement.
"Social listening is the monitoring of a brand's social media channels for any customer feedback and direct mentions of the brand or discussions regarding specific keywords, topics, competitors, or industries, followed by an analysis to gain insights and act on those opportunities."
"Using agent-based models, [the authors] considered the effects of misinformation on a norovirus outbreak, and some methods for countering the possible impacts of “good” and “bad” health advice. The work explicitly models spread of physical disease and information (both online and offline) as two separate but interacting processes."
BBC Media investigated hundreds of misleading stories during the pandemic, which led to their developing a list of seven types of people who spread misinformation and explaining what motivates them.
This blog was designed as a comic strip, and explains how to detect misinformation about COVID-19.
This document offers tools to help the media play their role in the COVID-19 pandemic response through accurate, ethical and responsible reporting. It also proposes ways to approach coverage and encourages journalists to provide advice and solutions that can help reduce health risks and save people's lives.
This fact sheet offers nine social media platforms on which one may report misinformation about COVID-19.
This webinar was the third part of a three-part series, Vaccination Misinformation Control and Prevention. The webinar was held in December 2020. This page offers the presentations and recording from the webinar.
"To try to control the COVID-19 infodemic, WHO has teamed up with the United Kingdom Government to create and distribute content to combat the spread of misinformation through a series of communication campaigns. This was one of several initiatives to combat misinformation taken by WHO on its own and with partners since the start of the COVID-19 outbreak."
"This document is written for humanitarian or public health organizations as well as national governments seeking to document rumors in a systematic and dynamic fashion."
This document offers guidance on creating a rumor/misinformation tracking system.
This is a short guide, with important steps and resources on how country programs can track and address rumors around COVID-19. The guide includes a number of great resources and links while also sharing ideas and innovations from global, collective thinking around rumors.
This presentation teaches how to understand the impact of rumors on programs and operations, and offers techniques to capture and address them.
Social media analytics is data offered by most social media sites that provides insight into what people are responding to and engaging with on social channels.
This page is aimed at helping the public distinguish between rumors and facts regarding the response to coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.
"Health misinformation is not a peculiarity of the 2020s. From rumours in Nigeria in the early 2000s that polio vaccinations were a conspiracy, to allegations that the 2015 Zika crisis in the Americas and Asia-Pacific was man made, there is a long history of health misinformation. This briefing reviews some of the key episodes and possible solutions.
"Since July 2020, Internews’ Rooted in Trust project has collected close to 20,000 rumours from seven project countries: Afghanistan, Lebanon, Philippines, Colombia, Central African Republic, Mali, and Sudan. We work in 12 local languages and collect data across seven major social media platforms and a wide range of feedback collection channels, including door-to-door surveys, informal meetings, assessments, community meetings, listening groups, SMS, and radio call-in shows."
"To combat what the World Health Organization has called an 'infodemic' around COVID-19, BBC News Africa has launched a searchable library of fact-checks debunking popular myths and misinformation about coronavirus in Africa.
Misinformation on COVID-19 in rural Nigeria was widespread. Rumors included that only those in cities, Egyptians, the rich, or people over 40 could get sick. In addition, rumours spread that alcohol consumption could prevent COVID-19 (based on the use of alcohol hand sanitizer), or that eating raw garlic could prevent it.
This is a review of the community feedback and media monitoring systems utilized in Ghana in 2020. The review was carried out to identify existing systems and note their strengths and areas which needed improvement.
This guidance was developed to remind journalists about getting the facts straight and offers several steps to ensure that the news that they report about a pandemic is accurate.
This review offers insight into the opinions and myths surrounding the real causes of cholera diseases.
This article explains that there is a good deal of misinformation that has been spread about the effects of the COVID-19 vaccine that might be detrimental to women's health.
"Building on previous work on Ebola and Zika viruses using Global Health Security Agenda systems strengthening support, Breakthrough ACTION developed a process and technology for systematically collecting, analyzing, and addressing COVID-19 rumors in real-time in Côte d’Ivoire. Rumors were submitted through community-based contributors and collected from callers to the national hotlines and then processed on a cloud-hosted database.
During the Ebola outbreak in Liberia in 2015, the international community quickly created a series of wide-scale social behavior change communication campaigns, a typical approach in humanitarian aid. This resulted in campaigns that bombarded local populations with massive but poorly coordinated blasts of messaging on billboards, in print, on radio and TV, through health outreach workers and community organizations, via SMS and call-in hotlines.
Bulletin bimestriel de la plateforme One Health. C'est un moyen de communication des activités réalises en appui à la plateforme One Health dans le cadre du Global Health Security Agenda. Plusieurs numéros sont consacrés au COVID-19.
Ce document a été produit en Avril 2021 pour la coordination des activités des partenaires qui appuie la plateforme One Health dans le cadre de la communication de risque.
“COVID-19 Mythbusters” are messages developed to counter popular rumors about COVID-19; SBC practitioners entered these rumors into a rumor tracking system.
The ten mythbusters, available in English and Siswati, were developed based on feedback received from chiefdom leadership who identified prevailing myths and misconceptions related to COVID-19 prevention, treatment or stigma related to recovery.
This page offers downloadable graphics that can be used in social media to dispel myths about the coronavirus.
This short radio drama from the Philippines describes how fake news related to COVID-19 spread online and how to deal with this misinformation. It also emphasizes on getting the right information from official sources.
Since the emergence of COVID-19, clearly communicating dos and don'ts to audiences who live and work in low resource and crowded contexts has become more important than ever. As the pandemic progresses, the need for physical distancing, masks, and hand-washing will remain for the foreseeable future.
This mini-series is aimed at informing and engaging Zambian audiences about symptoms, preventive actions and the importance of verified information during the pandemic.
This article reports about a cholera epidemic in Angola in 2006, considered at the time to be “the worst cholera outbreak in Angola’s recent history.”