Coronavirus (926) WHO: Special Issues on Infodemiology (2) Definition of infodemic (18)

21 August, 2020

Dear Sara and all,

Thank you for pointing us to this call for papers [

] from the WHO EPI-WIN Infodemic Management team. This is a collaboration of several journals: Big Data & Society, Health Security, The International Journal of Intelligence, Security and Public Affairs, the Pan American Journal of Public Health and Eastern Mediterranean Health Journal. Presumably the WHO Bulletin is also participating although it is not mentioned.

Below are some notes and a comment from me.

1. The call offers a fuller definition of infodemic:

'What is an infodemic? An infodemic is an acute outpouring of information, including potentially misleading or inaccurate information that, in a digital, hyper-connected society such as the present one, is likely bound to accompany every epidemic or acute health crisis. This overabundance of information makes it harder for people to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance when needed. The severity of the crisis and the related high social levels of alarm, fear and anxiety have contributed to a massive flow of information in the form of news media, scientific publications, and social media commentary. This abundance of information also includes misinformation, disinformation and rumors, which may lead to confusion, disorientation and risky or improper behavior, and ultimately to mistrust in governments, experts, researchers, and the media. These outcomes may seriously endanger the effectiveness of the response and of public health measures. While some false information is merely confusing without an explicit manipulative intent, other false health messages can be hazardous for public health, especially insofar as it leads people to react in ways that favor the spreading of the contagion or jeopardize the efficacy of the containment measures and adherence to guidelines validated by experts.'

2. The call focuses especially on misinformation: 'A deluge of information, including misleading or false content is spreading even faster through the internet, social networks and the media, dangerously altering risk perceptions and disseminating false information about the disease, potential cures, and probable sources. There is an increasing awareness that the surge of excessive, false or misleading information may pose new and serious threats to global health...'

3. 'Due to its consequences at the global scale and its analogies with the transmission mechanisms of a pandemic, the term “infodemic” is used to denote a rapid, large-scale dissemination of all kinds of health information and misinformation through a variety of media and informational channels. This overabundance of information – some accurate and some not – makes it harder for people to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance when needed...'


Does anyone have any evidence that an abundance of reliable information 'makes it harder for people to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance when needed'. I can see that medical journals are being inundated with papers, and perhaps those who synthesise evidence have more papers to draw from. There are more preprints to consider too. But I don't see much evidence that an abundance of reliable information makes it harder for the general public to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance when needed.

The difficulty in differentiating reliable from unreliable information is an 'endemic' feature of the global healthcare information system, and not a specific feature of the current infodemic. The difficulty applies to all types of healthcare information for all people. It is compounded by the fact that much 'reliable information' is useless to many readers because it is not in an appropriate language, literacy level, format, geographical context etc etc or simply because it is not actionable. The three core remedies are: building individual health literacy; building organisational health literacy; and simple tools to help people differentiate.

We need to be thinking holistically about information needs and how to meet them, and not be confined to a COVID-19 infodemic bubble. That said, the COVID-19 infodemic has opened many people's eyes to the critical importance of having access to the reliable information they need to protect their own health and the health of others, and protection from misinformation.

Best wishes, Neil

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HIFA profile: Neil Pakenham-Walsh is coordinator of the HIFA global health campaign (Healthcare Information For All - ), a global community with more than 19,000 members in 177 countries, interacting on six global forums in four languages in collaboration with WHO. Twitter: @hifa_org FB: