The COVID-19 pandemic has brought with it a tsunami of false, misleading, and even hazardous information. #mediadev spoke to Sylvie Briand, the World Health Organization's leading expert on the infodemic.
#mediadev: Mrs. Briand, in the context of the Covid-19 crisis the World Health Organization, or WHO, famously coined the term infodemic: an overabundance of information, bringing with it a wave of misinformation. What aspect of it struck you most?
Sylvie Briand: The infodemic is a phenomenon we see with every epidemic: With the rapid increase in cases of disease we see a rapid increase in information. There is good information, but there are also rumors, fake news or whatever––which we have seen before in other outbreaks. In Ebola outbreaks, for example, people were saying Ebola doesn't exist, or people didn't want to go to Ebola treatment centers, because they were saying that, in those centers, people were killed in order to take their organs and send them to other countries.
The new thing with COVID-19 is that more people and countries are affected and that we are more digitalized. And this enables rumors or fake news to travel faster and further. We need new tools and new approaches, because the phenomenon and its intensity are slightly different from the previous physical world communication.
Which strategies have proved successful so far?
First, to listen to people. We need to understand what their questions are. What are their concerns? We need to answer these questions and concerns and provide them with the right information at the right time in the right format.
The second thing is risk communication and distilling science. Science is evolving very fast and it's very confusing. Our role is to distill the science in a way that is understandable to people. And then people understand that sometimes we don't know something, which is fine. But they need to understand what we don't know, so that this vacuum is not filled by some kind of fake news.
What about plain disinformation?
We combat fake news and debunk myths. When there is bad information, we need first to fact-check. But also combat it with good information. We call it disinformation when there is a malign intent behind it. And this needs to be countered, because it has a very bad impact on people's health. For instance, in Iran, there was this rumor that was spreading that methanol can cure COVID and more than 400 people died of it. So sometimes, the infodemic can kill. And this is what we want to prevent.
How do you build trust?
The point is to empower people and engage with people, give them a voice to express what they want to express, because they need to be heard. They need to be empowered to find solutions. For instance, we are working very closely with youth associations, so that the messages we send out can be adapted to young generations––because they have a different way of speaking, talking and gathering information.
To what extent do you also adapt your messages to make sure they are understood and well received in different cultural contexts?
At WHO, we define the strategy and the kind of messages that we think are important, and our colleagues at regional and country offices translate it into local languages or local ways of understanding. For instance, we are working very closely with all kind of faith-based organizations. Together we analyze the risks during a religious gathering, so that they can implement measures to make them safer and do not have to cancel everything.
If you take into account the broader information ecosystem of a society, can you determine which factors help to better cope with the current infodemic?
I think the best approach is to engage with the population. When the population understands what has to be done to stop the transmission, it works much better. The top-down approach is necessary, but it's not enough. You also need to have a bottom-up approach, so it's this two-way dialogue that works better.
Suppression of communication doesn´t work. It usually fuels the contrary of what was intended: Then you have a vacuum, which is immediately filled by a conspiracy theory or fake news or other things.
What role do traditional journalism and media organizations play in this two-way dialogue?
Media are really, really important. I consider them as a partner during epidemic diseases. Traditional media have the trust of the population, and usually, they have established a long-term relationship with the people. But since things are moving very, very fast during a pandemic, traditional media don't always have time to really analyze and verify information.
One issue we have during a pandemic is that we don’t have enough journalists who are specialists. Suddenly, the guy who is usually doing sports starts doing Covid-19. We need to train them at the very beginning of a pandemic, to make them understand the difference between a virus and a bacterium, for instance, so that they avoid making mistakes in their articles.
Journalists need to interact with scientists and with practitioners. But because it's a crisis, not every expert in a certain field has the time to provide quotes and to be interviewed. And so they go to the people who have time, the expert of the moment, not necessarily someone who is really expert in the topic.
Social media companies have stepped up their engagement to curb disinformation. According to your observations, has the situation improved over the course of this year?
An improvement was that we have made an agreement with them. And they help us to push good information. Good information in this context is information that helps to protect people’s health: It's curated information, it's verified, it's analyzed by people who really know the subject.
But usually social media have algorithms that always offer people the same type of information. If someone, for instance, in general is prone to look at a certain website, she or he will continue to do so during the pandemic. We are trying to overcome those algorithms to make sure that people can have access to all information and are not trapped in echo chambers.
How far do experiences from earlier epidemics inform your current policies?
It's very important to engage the population. What has happened very often is that people and sometimes governments mistake the target. The target is not the people, the target is the virus.
This mindset is very important, because we have seen in many countries that an outbreak increases stigmatization of marginalized groups. It increased the rift in the society and the inequities. Managing the infodemic is not only protecting health, it is also protecting the society and its cohesiveness. And it is really important for people to understand that. Only targeting health is not enough, it's a whole society approach.
Dr. Sylvie Briand is the Director of the Global Infectious Hazard Preparedness Department within the WHO Health Emergency Programme at the WHO. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Briand launched the WHO Information Network for Epidemics, EPI-WIN. It aims at countering the spread of coronavirus misinformation.
WHO offers advice to the public on Covid-19, including the correction of false claims around the Coronavirus disease.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Interview: Alexander Matschke