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Measures proposed to tackle ‘infodemic’ amid global outbreak

JIN PINGHUA | 2020-04-07 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)
Widespread misinformation, rumors and myths about the novel coronavirus have triggered an information epidemic, or infodemic, which has been harmful in the fight against the outbreak. Photo: XINHUA


On Feb. 4, the World Health Organization released a situation report to warn about the “infodemic” phenomenon. At the annual Munich Security Conference, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the WHO, called on the international community to push back against the infodemic, as fake news has spread faster and more easily than the virus, posing a comparable risk. Antonio Guterres, United Nations secretary-general, also voiced concerns over stigmatization amid the novel coronavirus epidemic.
Origin, mechanism
“Infodemic” is a combination of “information” and “epidemic,” a term coined in 2003 by David Rothkopf in a Washington Post editorial as misinformation spread rampantly across the globe during the SARS epidemic. He defined it as follows: “A few facts, mixed with fear, speculation and rumor, amplified and relayed swiftly worldwide by modern information technologies, have affected national and international economies, politics and even security in ways that are utterly disproportionate with the root realities.”
“Infodemic” has a double meaning. One is an excess of information originated from the epidemic situation. The second is that the transmission of excessive information can itself be contagious. 
When information is widely disseminated on the internet, it is like a virus, which spreads at a high speed and is extremely difficult to control. While this form of communication has a positive effect in the field of advertising or marketing, it is clearly negative in the public security sector. 
When an epidemic outbreak couples with an information epidemic, it could double the harm on a society. In fact, in the current COVID-19 epidemic, social harm caused by the infodemic has already occurred.
In 1990, Philip Strong proposed a psychological model for large-scale epidemic diseases. He argued that “a major outbreak of a novel, fatal epidemic disease can quickly be followed both by plagues of fear, panic, suspicion and stigma; and by mass outbreaks of moral controversy, of potential solutions and of personal conversion to the many different causes which spring up.”
Thus, Strong pointed out that epidemic psychology involves at least three types of psycho-social epidemics: an epidemic of fear, an epidemic of explanation and moralization, and an epidemic of action or proposed action.
As of today, people are reacting to the large, fatal COVID-19 epidemic precisely through the lenses of these three types of psycho-social epidemics.
Fear mainly stems from humanity’s anxiety over the unknown virus, which is ceaselessly presented, amplified and echoed in the global media, especially in social media, triggering an epidemic of fear. In a way, such an epidemic is no longer a fear of the disease, but more like a fear of fear.
The novel coronavirus has caused a large-scale COVID-19 epidemic, but the origin and impact of the disease will not be concluded for a long time. As various interpretations from various information channels emerge, confusion, doubt, speculation and rumor ensue. The explanation of the disease quickly evolves into a form of moral criticism. Such attacks in the name of justice are highly contagious.
The epidemic of action or proposed action follows an epidemic of explanation and moralization, at which point a feeling of loss is replaced by a series of actions driven by some firm belief in the moral sense. Such behavior is closely related to the social media era’s orientation around clicks and views. 
On Jan. 25, some videos and pictures showing local village officials in Henan Province taking extreme measures to control the spread of the virus went viral on Sina Weibo and other social media platforms. Later on, some conventional media outlets picked them up as well. In theory, such measures are what Strong calls “actions.” It did not take long for other villages to adopt these extreme methods, such as destroying gates and blocking roads, to prevent people’s movement. As Strong has pointed out, epidemics can potentially create a medical version of “a war against all.”
Since the outbreak of COVID-19, irrational emotions have started to gain traction among social media and some professional media. However, it should be noted that the cure to a war against all also relies on new media.
Alongside these three types of psycho-social epidemics is the more common stigma phenomenon. It can be said that a stigma is a social psychological choice and action to disperse fear. The moral judgment makes the action of spreading the stigma justifiable. 
The labels “Wuhan residents,” “Chinese people” and even “overseas Chinese” have likened to the connotations associated with the word “virus,” suggesting that these groups need to be avoided as much as possible, after which they have been abstracted into “virus” in the symbolic sense. 
By far, a large number of social science studies have shown that the influence of stigmatization is complex and far-reaching. In the short term, it can cause potential infected persons, suspected infected persons, and even infected persons to withhold the truth, leading to a more serious outbreak. In the long term, the effect goes beyond the period of infectious disease outbreak, potentially derailing some of the traditional social order. 
In this light, the WHO initially named the virus that caused the Wuhan outbreak “2019-nCoV,” later revising it to COVID-19. This “de-Sinicization” and “de-stigmatization” naming method indeed takes into consideration the long-term destructive effects of an infodemic.
Countermeasures in new media era
Strong believed that psycho-social epidemics are “a permanent part of the human condition.” His study in the early 1990s focused more on the relationship between interpersonal communication, mass communication and epidemic psychology, and the current infodemic confirms that Strong’s model is still applicable to today’s communication environment. 
The question is, compared with the traditional media environment, can information transmission in the 2020s be more effective in face of this prognosis?
Theoretically, the prevention and control of an infodemic can be incorporated into the risk management system for epidemics. The prerequisite of this incorporation is that we must recognize it as a matter of communication between governments, experts and the public. 
The initial doubt and speculation, the subsequent fear and rumors, and then the reflexively ever-more amplified reactions are all related to how messages are conveyed. From the non-transparent and even misleading information caused by overly conservative estimates at the beginning, to the social psychological epidemic created by information overload, all need to be corrected and eliminated through specific modes of communication.
It is worth noting that in the social media era, information communication during an emergency outbreak must engage the public as participants rather than as the object of a service. The best mode of information communication is neither top-down nor bottom-up, but an equal communication in each new media scenario.
In reality, government officials, experts in related fields and a number of internet platforms have already been taking advantage of new media technologies to collect information and provide feedback during the current outbreak. 
For example, the State Council has used a mini-app embedded in WeChat to collect information for epidemic prevention and control. The public account of People’s Daily has used questionnaires to collect patient information to help those who need medical care. Alibaba’s cloud business unit has been offering a variety of services based on its artificial intelligence-powered technologies to combat COVID-19. Other apps and platforms have also been providing rumor debunking services such as WeChat Anti-Rumor Assistant. 
A key for these new media tools to work is that the public needs to provide information. Only through collecting and aggregating such information and treating individuals and organizations as stakeholders in the process of emergency transmissions can an equal, real-time, quantitative, open-to-inquiry and credible communication mechanism be established.
In addition, infodemics are not unique to China. Many countries have begun to show symptoms, which is why the WHO and the UN have jointly alerted the international community to this phenomenon. 
At the moment, WHO technical risk communication and social media teams have been working closely to track and respond to myths and rumors. Through its headquarters in Geneva, its six regional offices and its partners, the organization is working 24 hours a day to identify the most prevalent rumors that can potentially harm public health, such as false prevention measures or cures. These myths are then refuted with evidence-based information to combat the infodemic.
New infectious diseases are unpredictable, but the infodemics that arise from them are largely foreseeable. The way to alleviate the current infodemic is to engage the public in communication and to further develop and use new media tools to collect and disseminate information. Since the epidemic psychology is rooted in human nature, how to prevent and mitigate infodemics will become a pervasive and enduring issue.
Jin Pinghua is an associate professor from the School of Journalism and Communication at Anhui University.
​edited by YANG XUE