In February, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organization, declared that Covid-19 was not the only public health emergency the world was facing — we were also suffering from an “infodemic” of fake medical news. “Fake news spreads faster and more easily than this virus,” he said, “and is just as dangerous.”
The metaphor of a psychic infection accompanying a physical one fits neatly into the current “post-truth” narrative. Articles from news sources including the Associated Press ran with the metaphor, describing misinformation as a contagion with “no antidote in sight”.
Such reporting has been strengthened by academic papers making startling claims about the human impact of false information. Earlier this month, outlets including the BBC, Deutsche Welle and The New York Times published articles about research that linked coronavirus misinformation to at least 800 deaths. (The validity of this research was later contested.)
There is good reason to be wary of the spread of dangerous and misleading misinformation online. But the conceptual framework of the infodemic, casting it in terms of disease, risks oversimplifying the problem — and letting the politicians and experts off the hook.
Infodemiology, the study of how to manage an information overload during an epidemic, is a recent field: researchers at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism (RISJ) and the Oxford Internet Institute pointed out that the majority of papers have emerged since the start of 2020. But the word “infodemic” first appeared in The Washington Post in 2003, in relation to the Sars epidemic. David Rothkopf, journalist and political scientist, used it to describe how “a few facts, mixed with fear, speculation and rumour”, amplified by technology, could lead to a disproportionate reaction.
The WHO, by contrast, defines an infodemic as “an overabundance of information — some accurate and some not — occurring during an epidemic”. That deluge of information, it claims, makes it harder to access reliable information. Our first problem, then, is that we cannot even agree what the “disease” is.
It is certainly true that technology has been an important vector for false information such as viral videos promoting anti-vaccine and anti-mask myths; websites pushing “miracle cures”; and messages forwarded between WhatsApp accounts claiming that the Chinese government was killing citizens infected with coronavirus.
But there are reasons to view the framework of information-as-disease with scepticism, not least because some of the basic assumptions are questionable. Felix Simon, research assistant at the RISJ, has pointed out on Twitter that the assumption that people cannot find solid information does not square with the fact that many have looked to traditional media sources as well as health experts.
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Simon acknowledges that the comparison of a social phenomenon to a disease has been used to the point of exhaustion, with talk of a “cancer in the body politic” or “fear spreading like a virus”. The familiarity of the analogy undoubtedly makes it appealing. Just as we can imagine coronavirus transmitted via droplets, so we can conceive of false advice being spread over the internet.
But in a real disease there is a clear delineation between health and sickness (assuming that tests are accurate). The same is not true for information. Granted, there are cases of clear misinformation. But in many cases, deciding what is healthy information is a highly subjective decision.
Prestigious medical journals such as The Lancet and The New England Journal of Medicine have had to retract Covid-19 studies after serious questions over the data used. Those articles may have had a knock-on effect on public health decisions; would the venerable journals be classified as vectors for the information disease?
Unlike the status of being healthy or infected by an actual disease, what constitutes accurate information is also subject to change. The WHO’s volte-face on wearing masks is a prime example of a shifting orthodoxy, which means formerly accepted ideas could drift into the broad category of misinformation.
If there is to be a postmortem of the pandemic information ecosystem, conspiracy theorists and snake-oil salesmen should not be the only targets for criticism. A real cure for the “infodemic” would include some honest introspection from gatekeepers as well.
Siddharth Venkataramakrishnan is the FT’s acting European technology correspondent
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