COVID-19 Infodemic

RM Ambrose/ February 22, 2020/ epidemic-pandemic

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Working as a leader on the communications team has its benefits. I’m often privy to information prior to it being released to the public.

This isn’t because there’s some conspiracy to hide the truth. I’m not denying that Marketing and PR departments of any organization can be expected to try and “spin” the truth, to cast an organization in the best possible light. That’s not nearly the same thing as a cover-up or lying.

When there is a high-profile medical event, a patient or patients that the media is interested in, there is often some information that can be released. However, there are many restrictions that a Health System has to observe.

Sometimes an organization cannot refute an accusation publicly because doing so would violate a patient’s privacy. There are major penalties for violating HIPAA. Sometimes, as with an infectious disease like COVID-19, health officials may need to be the ones to make an announcement first.

It’s nice to be in-the-know. But in my experience, the important information usually gets released, or comes to light, eventually.

Shortly after the news broke in January, a friend texted me an image of a printed email from NWLLAB that looked like an announcement from a Ministry Of Health (MOH) about the importance avoiding fried or spicy food and loading up on vitamin C.

While avoiding fried food isn’t bad health advice, and vitamin C has benefits for the immune system, the message never mentioned the key messages that reputable health institutions, such as my own, were advising people to do (i.e., wash your hands frequently with soap and water – despite being one of the most basic things, it’s hard to be aware of what we do with our own hands, and hand washing is extremely effective).

But I couldn’t help contemplating the people who create hoaxes and fakes. They’ve been around for ages. As an anthropology student I learned about Piltdown Man of the early 1910’s and many other hoaxes on science. And The Great Moon Hoax of 1835 is an unsettling example of antebellum Fake News.

Who stood to benefit, or what agenda did it serve, to make people afraid to eat spicy food? That random-seeming recommendation that appears in the middle of potentially beneficial, if irrelevant, health advice.

What if people started avoiding restaurants that served spicy food? What communities would this impact? Mexican restaurants? Asian restaurants? Italian restaurants?

What if people started avoiding people they thought ate spicy foods? Refusing them service or giving them sub-par service in order to get rid of them. Treating them with distrust?

To a large extent, populations associated with eating spicy food consist of peoples of color. Chinese restaurants in many cities are already being hit by hard by fear in their communities.

While I have not seen any reports on the source of the NWLLAB email post, the recent rise in recruitment activities and hate crimes that has led to the FBI placing racist violence at the same threat level as international terrorism certainly makes me suspicious about the motivations behind the NWLLAB email.

This is not the only misinformation campaign that swiftly cropped up to take advantage of the Novel Coronavirus outbreak. There have been false conspiracy theories about massive numbers of cases at local hospitals in counties where there are no cases. Now there are reports of a Russian disinformation campaign that claims that the COVID-19 is a bio-weapon unleashed by the US.

The WHO launched a campaign to fight disinformation with reliable information as a “vaccine against misinformation.” (quote from Dr. Mike Ryan, head of WHO’s health emergencies program.)

In a general sense, I believe the best way to address misinformation is with the truth. Part of the solution, especially in the long term, should be promoting digital literacy skills, such as Civic Online Reasoning.

If you are interested in hearing from sources I look to, there is an event Tuesday called “Dispelling Miths: What we know about Coronavirus”, February 25 at 6pm Pacific that will be live-streamed.

And maybe the WHO initiative will test and develop effective strategies for social media platforms. The future of a vaccine for infodemics is still unclear.

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