The proliferation of information in the digital age has led to the emergence of the fake news phenomenon, with public trust in official news outlets eroding significantly in the past five years.
This has given rise to the term “infodemic”, which the World Health Organisation (WHO) defined on their website as “too much information, including false or misleading information, in digital and physical environments during a disease outbreak”.
The issues arising from an infodemic are compounded by a tendency for false information and alarmist articles to garner more attention among the general public.
Indeed, a 2018 study by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab found that false information was about 70 percent more likely to be shared and retweeted as compared to the truth.
An explosion of information during the pandemic
Unsurprisingly, the onset of COVID-19 brought about an influx of information on the pandemic, and with it, a flood of fake news surrounding the virus – from outlandish conspiracy theories, to unproven home remedies for the virus, to unfounded fears over the vaccines, there were a myriad of false information on COVID-19 that were being spread, especially in the digital sphere.
There can, however, be serious – and sometimes, fatal – consequences to false information being spread widely, warned Tim Morris, Commercial Portfolio and Partnership Director for Elsevier.
Speaking at the recent HMA 2021 conference in a session titled ‘Is there a vaccine for COVID 19 medical infodemic?’, Morris said: “False information is a real problem, because if you’re trying to fight a pandemic, then the last thing you need is to have the vaccines being put down.
“So, the negative impact of misinformation and disinformation can be significant. It can cause harm to public health…and could potentially kill, so we need to find ways of controlling that.”
Morris highlighted how the recent trend in the growth of open access journals from some predatory publishers, has “changed the dynamics of the way journals are created”, there is a risk that they may also contribute to the spread of false information unless from trusted sources.
He explained: “People can pay to have their journals published without rigorous peer review – then you have a change, potentially, in the quality of the information.
“We know that where people don’t have good access to high-quality journals, then there is a higher risk of misinformation and disinformation.”
Another notable contributor to the infodemic is the sharing of misinformation by people of influence.
Morris cited statistics which showed that leading influencers, including those in politics, were responsible for producing about 20 percent of the misinformation on the internet, including on YouTube and social media.
Rapper and pop singer Nicki Minaj, for example, recently made headlines after tweeting to her 22.8 million followers on Twitter that her cousin’s friend in Trinidad & Tobago had become impotent after taking “the vaccine” – a claim that was debunked two days later after investigations by the country’s health ministry.
Unverified claims made by such influencers can be dangerous, as Morris elaborated: “The problem is that 69 percent of the population then shares that misinformation, so it goes global, fast. Among the most viewed English videos regarding COVID-19, 27.5 percent of that contained non-factual information, reaching 62 million views worldwide.
“So, the people we respect, those we expect to give us the truth, aren’t necessarily doing that for us.”
Healthcare providers are part of the solution
While the rise of social media has been pinpointed as one of the main causes for the infodemic, Morris believes that its power can be harnessed to spread the truth as well.
“We’ve seen how social media has worked for good. We believe social media has a crucial role in disseminating health information and tackling infodemics and misinformation,” said Morris.
The key, therefore, lies in healthcare providers and clinicians being able to filter information correctly, and understand whether it is fact or fiction.
“We need systems to identify and tackle misinformation. Fake news detection needs to be automated to a degree, but with the amount of information coming onto the internet, it’s very hard to do that, so we need humans to intervene as well,” said Morris.
“That’s where clinicians come in, because knowledge from professionals become very important. As healthcare providers, we need to ensure that we share only information that is factual and relevant.
“We need to prolifically share that information when we can, so we only spread the facts, not the fiction, and don’t become part of the problem.”
Accessing and sharing information from reliable sources
Morris, however, acknowledged that healthcare providers also faced the issue of having access to far too much information – the number of publications on artificial intelligence and health, medicine, and healthcare has increased by 625 percent in the last 5 years – making it difficult for them to discern between fact or fiction.
That is why he strongly encourages clinicians to sieve out information only from “trusted sources”.
He added: “You have to have filters, and have information that is relevant. It does not only need to come from a trusted source, but also needs to be evidence based…and we need to get that (trusted evidence-based information) to the clinicians in a way they can easily consume and use.”
To that end, Morris advised healthcare providers and clinicians to turn to sources like the WHO, who are currently consolidating all of the available trusted information about COVID-19 for people to use, whether it be for research or in other ways.
Morris also revealed that as a global information analytics business specialising in scientific, technical, and medical content, Elsevier has sieved out and made available trusted, evidence-based information about the pandemic, which can be accessed on their COVID-19 healthcare hub.
“We at Elsevier believe it is really important that doctors can go to a trusted source without political, pharmaceutical, public influence, so that we can find the facts behind information,” Morris declared.
“The information we gather is also fed to the WHO, and so we would encourage healthcare providers to stop doctors and nurses from using untrusted sources or googling for their answers. Instead, direct them to use information from the WHO and other trusted sources, so that they can bring back the information they require in their practice.”