Coronavirus (839) An exploration of how fake news is taking over social media and putting public health at risk (3)

19 July, 2020

Dear Joseph and all,

"So, in what specific way can forums like HIFA help them the public identify fake news stories and ignore it and not act as it says?"

Thank you for this important question.

My take on this is that the current infodemic is an inevitable consequence of a broken global health information system.

Back in 2004 we said in The Lancet: 'The development of reliable, relevant, usable information can be represented as a system that requires cooperation among a wide range of professionals including health-care providers, policy makers, researchers, publishers, information professionals, indexers, and systematic reviewers. The system is not working because it is poorly understood, unmanaged, and under-resourced.' At that time we were optimistically asking 'Can we achieve health information for all by 2015?' (the title of the paper). It was clear these intrinsic weaknesses of the system needed urgently to be addressed, and this is why HIFA was established in 2006, with a donation of £2k from The BMJ: 1. to promote communication among all stakeholders mentioned above; 2. to develop a better understanding of information needs and how to meet them; and 3. to advocate for increased awareness of health information as a global health issue and investment in health information services. It has to be said that HIFA has made limited progress, largely because we have failed to raise anything like the funds we need to tackle this ambitious agenda. Not one funding agency has yet committed, for example, to our shared vision of a world where every person has access to the reliable health information they need to protect their own health an dthe health of others.

The current infodemic demonstrates beyond all doubt that connectivity alone is *not* the answer. Indeed, ubiquitous connectivity is a key cause of the infodemic. We have seen an explosion in the use of social media, many of which operate in ways that foment and spread false information, encouraging people to abandon mainstream news in favour of hearsay and conspiracy theory. There is a lack of understanding and (increasing?) loss of trust in science and modern medicine. All this compunds the dysfunctional global health information system described above, to create a perfect storm.

What can HIFA do to 'help the public identify fake news stories'? We have a unique contribution to make towards what must be a high-level, global effort. Our strategic partner WHO is leading efforts right now with the first WHO global infodemiology conference (29 June to 21 July):

What is our unique contribution? HIFA can (and does) uniquely provide a discussion space for all disciplines to share experience and expertise, to understand better the challenges of different groups, and to explore possible solutions. We can do this in English, French, Portuguese and Spanish in a way that is participatory, respectful, and inclusive. HIFA volunteers at the University of Toronto and UNiversity of Edinburgh are currently working to analyse all our discussions on COVID-19 to date, and this is just the start. A multidisciplinary, international approach is essential to address this (and other) global health challenge(s).

Over the coming weeks we plan to launch a new HIFA project specifically on COVID-19, supported by the University of Edinburgh. If you or your organisation is interested to be part of this, please get in touch (

I think each of us on HIFA needs also to think "What can I do? What can my organisation do to help the public identify fake news stories? To address other aspects of the infodemic? To improve the availability and use of reliable healthcare information?"

We look forward to hear the deliberations of WHO's global infodemiology conference. The results of this conference will be reported to the public in a Public Summary on 21 July 2020 at 15.00h-16.30h Geneva time. Many of us will be joining online and I encourage all HIFA members to do the same:

Best wishes, Neil

Let's build a future where people are no longer dying for lack of healthcare information - Join HIFA:

HIFA profile: Neil Pakenham-Walsh is coordinator of the HIFA global health campaign (Healthcare Information For All - ), a global community with more than 20,000 members in 180 countries, interacting on six global forums in four languages in collaboration with WHO. Twitter: @hifa_org FB: