”But we’re not just fighting an epidemic; we’re fighting an infodemic. Fake news spreads faster and more easily than this virus, and is just as dangerous.” WHO Director-General, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Munich 15 February 2020

Vaccine hesitancy fueled by the spread of mis- and disinformation online has led many countries to struggle vaccinating sufficient parts of their population against COVID-19. The ECCMID 2021 seminar “Ethics and conspiracy regarding vaccines” focused on the issue of the current infodemic and approaches for managing it.  This series will summarize three topical questions answered in the seminar, starting with:

Hva er situasjonen i Norge? 

Før vi går videre, så ønsker vi å presisere at i Norge er det liten vaksineskepsis i forhold til i mange andre europeiske land. Vi har i Norge høy vaksinasjonsgrad av koronavaksinering og man ser også at vaksinedekningen i barnevaksinasjonsprogrammet har vært godt over 90% i løpet av koronapandemien. Dette viser tallene fra SYSVAK i 2019 og 2020. Vi har likevel valgt å ta med innholdet fra foredraget på ECCMID, da dette temaet er en av de 10 største utfordringene til WHO.

Question #1: What is an infodemic and how is the WHO fighting it?

The key to managing an infodemic lies in understanding the information needs of the public. WHO’s Tim Nguyen highlighted how the social listening approach allows the WHO to quickly respond to trending misinformation in social media in his presentation “WHO strategy concerning the COVID-19 infodemic”.

The term “infodemic” may be defined as an excess of information, both factual and incorrect, which makes it difficult for people to make health-related decisions. Recent advancements in technology have rapidly changed the ways information is produced, distributed and consumed. The current infodemic is in part enabled by the increased access to and use of internet and social media, providing people with vast amounts of information.     

Although most misinformation circulating online is likely being shared with good intentions, it is important to recognise that the infodemic proposes a real threat to public health, at both      the individual and societal level. The spread of mis- and disinformation may lead people to turn to potentially harmful solutions, and undermines public trust in health authorities.

When fighting against this infodemic, the focus should be on building resilience to misinformation at the societal level, rather than attempting to debunk each individual false claim. Furthermore, it is the duty of health authorities and the scientific community at large to provide better information by making high quality, accurate information accessible and understandable to the public.     

Understanding the information needs of the public is the key to managing an infodemic. During the COVID-19 pandemic the WHO has successfully utilised a real-time social listening approach, in which artificial intelligence is used to analyse the social media conversation around COVID-19. Identifying the rising topics in online COVID-19 discussion allows the WHO to identify information gaps, address the public’s concerns as they arise, and debunk harmful claims before they go viral. This approach has been a valuable tool for the WHO in planning targeted and timely interventions in the public discussion.     

To support effective infodemic management on a national level, the WHO developed and launched the EARS (early AI-supported response with social listening) service in 20 pilot countries, and offered special training for infodemic managers. Furthermore, the WHO is looking to strengthen the scientific basis of infodemic response. To achieve this, they are inviting scientists to identify key research questions for understanding both how people receive, process and act on information as well as how information originates, evolves and spreads in social media channels.

Next up in the series: Question #2 Who and what are the drivers behind the success of the anti-vaccine rhetoric?”
ECCMID 2021 references:

WHO strategy concerning the COVID-19 infodemic. Tim Nguyen (Geneva, Switzerland). Presented online at ECCMID 2021 on 10  July 2021. 

Additional references:

Folkehelseinstituttet, Barnevaksinasjonsprogrammet i Norge - rapport 2019 og 2020 (fhi.no), rapport 2021.
Folkehelseintituttet, Koronavaksinasjons-statistikk - FHI, oppdatert 5.10.2021, lest 06.10.2021