Coronavirus (924) Definition of infodemic (17)

21 August, 2020

HIFA colleagues

Chris Zielinski’s note [] helpfully points to the care needed, in defining and considering how to tackle an infodemic, to differentiate the problems posed by the spread of dis- or mis- information from the problems that people may face coping with a flood even of accurate information.

There cannot be much doubt that dis- and mis- information is undesirable, whether looked at from the perspective of volume or (as I argued it should be) also of flow. The latter perspective highlights the unique feature of an infodemic, if seen as analogous to an epidemic - the rapidly increasing spread of information - and therefore the importance of measures focusing specifically on tackling this feature. For that we need to reduce not only the generation of dis- and mis- information but also to reduce the susceptibility of people to it, as that would not only protect them but also stop them spreading it to others. Interrupting the transmission chain is particularly important in the age of social media when mis-information can be quickly and easily spread by so few to so many.

The problem posed by a flood of accurate information is different. It does not seem helpful to use the term infodemic for a flood (or even a flow) of non-harmful information. (And, as Neil has suggested, a closer analogy for this might be with the word endemic than with epidemic.) Here, as Chris says, the key need is not to reduce the flood level or to stem the flow rate but to increase the ability of people to cope with it - to differentiate accurate from dis- and mis-information, to identify what is most relevant to them, and so on.

Of course, for many in the world, there is no such flood of accessible accurate information, and the flow of it to them may be no more than a trickle. Those without much or any access to reliable health information are those amongst whom an infodemic of mis-information is particularly likely to break out.

The above points to three key ways of tackling the problems of a health infodemic (one of which is also relevant to coping with a situation where there is a flood of accurate information):

- Reducing the generation of dis- and mis-information about health.

- Ensuring everyone, everywhere, has timely access to reliable and relevant health information.

- Boosting the ability of people to recognise and differentiate reliable and relevant from irrelevant or harmful health information.

The last two of these would form the informational equivalent of improving people’s immune system though, respectively, nutrition and vaccination.

Geoff Royston

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.

geoff.royston AT