Coronavirus (913) Definition of infodemic (15)

18 August, 2020

Neil, Chris, Joseph and HIFA colleagues

An interesting and valuable discussion, to which I would add another angle. My starting point would be to suggest that the term infodemic would be most useful if it carried a closely analogous meaning to that of epidemic. In which case it should refer to the rapid (indeed, accelerating) spread through a population of information that is in some way harmful to them.

The debate about whether not only mis- and dis- information but also an abundance even of accurate information can be harmful or at least unhelpful is instructive; how much do we know about the relative impact of being misinformed about health matters and being overwhelmed simply by sheer volume of health-related information? (My guess would be that the former is much larger than the latter, for similar reasons to those noted by Joseph Ana).

However it is mainly the other part of the definition, about rapid spread, that I want to raise here. I would maintain that a high volume of information (accurate or otherwise; overabundant or not) is the product of an infodemic, not the infodemic itself, which, as noted above, should be seen as the process of rapid spread. The WHO definition not only risks conflating good and bad information but also confuses a stock (amount of information) with a flow (spreading of information).

This is a confusion worth avoiding, as it has practical consequences. Reducing the production of harmful or unhelpful information is always necessary, but, as with epidemics, the unique challenge of an infodemic is stemming the rapidly increasing rate of flow (volume x velocity) of such information, of which I would expect dis- and mis-information to be likely to be the most damaging. That means not only reducing the initial production of harmful information, but also decreasing people’s receptivity to it (the informational equivalent of immunisation, to continue the analogy with epidemics) and thus their potential to pass it on.


Dr Geoff Royston

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HIFA profile: Geoff Royston is an Independent Health Analyst and Researcher, former Head of Strategic Analysis and Operational Research in the Department of Health for England, and Past President of the UK Operational Research Society. His work has focused on informing the design, implementation and evaluation of policies and programmes in health and social care, and on fostering the capabilities of others to work in these areas. Associated activities have included modelling for understanding the performance of complex systems, analysis and communication of risk, and horizon scanning and futures thinking. He has also worked on information and communication technology in the health sector, notably in leading the design and national launch of the telephone and online health information and advice service NHS Direct. He has served on both scientific and medical UK Research Council panels, and as an impact assessor for the UK higher education Research Excellence Framework. He is a member of the editorial board for the journal Health Care Management Science and in 2012 was Guest Editor for its special issue on Global Health. He has been a consultant for the World Health Organisation, is a long standing member of the EURO Working Group on Operational Research Applied to Health Services, and is an expert adviser to the mHIFA (mobile Healthcare Information for All) programme. He is also a member of the main HIFA Steering Group and the HIFA working group on Evaluating the Impact of Healthcare Information.

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