A labour of love: the infodemic managers

Collage, 3 March

Scrolling through Twitter can be an emotional rollercoaster: the good, the bad, the very ugly. One thing that’s especially hard to shake right now are the posts from exhausted doctors and nurses, begging us to understand that hospitals are overwhelmed with Covid-19 patients, begging us to take distancing rules seriously. Read the replies to such posts, and you’ll see the fake-news army chipping in to claim that the death rate has in fact not risen, that Covid is just like the flu, even that medics are lying about what’s happening before their eyes. 

A small but globally dispersed force has been armed to take on such untruths. Among them is a friend of mine, Debora, who is one of the 135 or so recently trained and certified by the World Health Organization as an ‘infodemic manager’. 

A freelance health communications specialist, Debora took the training partly because it may open up future work opportunities – but also for personal reasons: some of her friends didn’t seem to be taking the virus seriously or were ignoring the official advice. “I remember on the first or second day asking people in the training, ‘Do you guys also struggle in your personal lives, with your friends or family with this?’ And everyone said yes. It was a huge relief to me. Because it’s a phenomenon that’s affecting everyone.”

The WHO defines an infodemic as “a flood of information alongside an epidemic”. The term was first used back in 2003, to refer to the deluge of misinformation and fake news that came with the outbreak of SARS – but the phenomenon itself isn’t new. Fake news remedies were also around during the Black Death of the 14th century. 

The scale and speed of the spread, though, is novel. Campaign group Avaaz reported last August that websites spreading health misinformation had generated an estimated 3.8 billion views on Facebook over the previous year. Content from the top 10 websites spreading health misinformation had almost four times as many estimated views on Facebook as equivalent content from the websites of 10 leading health institutions, such as the WHO and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

It’s unclear what the sum effect of all this misinformation might be. But it could be fatal. One study estimated that 5,800 people were admitted to hospital – and at least 800 people may have died – as a result of false information on social media during just the first few months of the pandemic.

Rules of engagement

So how does an infodemic manager deal with all of this? 

Debora summed up some of the key lessons. Debunk misinformation only when you see that it is causing harm. Reinforce the facts, rather than repeating the falsehood (bad news tends to travel faster, so infodemic managers need to make more effort to make the accurate information “noisier”). Perhaps use a ‘truth sandwich’: start with the fact, address the false information, finish with the fact again. Use everyday, accessible language. Responding to an inaccurate post probably won’t convince the original author of the post, but may well convince those who read the comments, who are still making up their minds. And avoid personal attacks or insults, such as the suggestion that someone is stupid for believing something.

“People believe in conspiracy theories because they have legitimate questions,” Debora said; from the cause of the disease to the safety of vaccines, these are all normal things to question or to be concerned about. “For me, personally, [remembering this] helps me to feel more empathy for them.” 

But infodemic managers were also told not to waste time trying to convince those with fixed views, Debora told me. “You need to save your energy for those that are still open to being convinced, or to hear your scientific narrative.” Since the training, she’s thinking more carefully before following her gut reactions, and being more strategic about where she devotes her efforts. Instead of posting on her own social media feeds – which mostly reach people who agree with her anyway – she visits online groups and adds comments where relevant there.

The scale of the problem is immense, of course. WHO knows the infodemic army won’t be able to stop the spread of information, so the goal is simply to slow the spread – to “flatten the curve”, much in the same way as we’re trying to do with coronavirus infection rates. In that sense, this is not a group ‘managing’ the infodemic in terms of controlling it, but simply responding to bits and pieces of it wherever it can.

Their battle looks pretty daunting. Spreaders of false information, after all, have an unfair advantage – they don’t need to spend time verifying details and will quickly fill any void left by scientists who are still waiting for evidence or health authorities that are waiting to make a statement. Meanwhile, our conventional scientific research methods aren’t suited to today’s pace and today’s news cycle. As one professor at Johns Hopkins’ Bloomberg School of Public Health puts it: “We’re trying to deliver reliable information in 24 hours instead of in the standard six to 18 months of the traditional research cycle of annual conferences and journals.” 

Still, the authorities have started realising that they need to speak out more quickly. “Communicating uncertainty becomes very important,” said Debora. “It’s better to be quick but to acknowledge uncertainty – to say, ‘We’re talking, we’re here, but we don’t know it yet’, than to not say anything and let people find answers somewhere else.”

There are more challenges. Science evolves, and therefore so does official guidance (think mask-wearing, which was initially not encouraged in some places). Pointing sceptics to WHO sources doesn’t always work, because the institution itself is seen by some as not credible. 

And an infodemic army needs more than just the foot soldiers on the misinformation front lines. It needs close consultation and ‘social listening’ to understand what questions are being raised and what cultural or other factors may be causing reluctance to obey new rules. It needs behaviour change experts, data scientists, political leaders who are prepared to put scientific evidence before personal instinct – and, of course, the cooperation of the hugely influential social media platforms. 

In the meantime people like Debora are still faced with difficult decisions. A recent post she wrote on Facebook urging people to stay home drew 300+ comments in 12 hours – including dismissals because “she is certified by the WHO which is Gates-corrupted”. The conversation become pretty unpleasant, and the group’s administrators had to close the comments.

Debora consulted her fellow trainees – who, since the training finished, have stayed in touch to share tactics and support. Their advice, to ignore the hecklers, deliver the factual information and move on, was exactly what she needed. But I don’t envy the job. Putting yourself out there knowing you’re opening yourself up to personal attacks from strangers is surely not on anyone’s list of fun things to do.

A video compilation featuring short interviews with infodemic managers – speaking in multiple languages and in front of a range of backdrops – gives an indication of how universal this problem is. From Mali to South Korea, USA to the Netherlands, you get the sense that they’re all fighting a similar battle.

Lynette Phuong, in Australia, quotes something she learned from the training – that infodemic management is “a process, not an end state”. In that sense, she says, it’s like building trust, learning a language, staying healthy and fit and “of course, being in love”. It’s a commitment comparable to marriage, she suggests: “You’ve got to be in it for the long haul.”