New York (CNN Business)As health officials in a growing number of countries fight to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, they’re also working to stem a secondary issue that the World Health Organization is calling an “infodemic.”
The WHO defines an infodemic as “an overabundance of information — some accurate and some not — that makes it hard for people to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance when they need it.” The problem is aided by the ease and speed with which false or misleading information can spread on social media.
Coronavirus, also known as COVID-19, emerged in China in January and now has spread to more than 85,000 global cases with infections on every continent except for Antarctica. As the disease has spread, so too have false claims online about how it began, the number of people infected and promises of magical cures.
“In this particular case, with COVID-19, because of the growth of social media platforms in recent years, information is spreading faster than the virus itself,” Aleksandra Kuzmanovic, social media manager for the WHO, told CNN’s Brian Stelter on “Reliable Sources” Sunday.
In an effort to help people sort through the sometimes overwhelming amount of information online, Kuzmanovic said the organization is working directly with social media companies to ensure users are directed to trusted sources. Now, when social media users on a number of platforms, including Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, search for “coronavirus,” they are directed first to information from either the WHO, the Centers for Disease Control or their national health ministry.
The WHO is also working to produce information in a range of languages as the outbreak spreads around the world.
But as digital misinformation campaigns become increasingly sophisticated, the WHO and other world health officials should be doing more, said Seema Yasmin, director of the Stanford Health Communication Initiative and a former officer with the Centers for Disease Control’s Epidemic Intelligence Service.
“We’ve seen the spread of rumors and anti-science messages during Ebola, during Zika,” Yasmin said. “The anti-vaccine movement is not new, and WHO’s response often has been, ‘Oh, there’s a really bad outbreak of measles in Eastern Europe, it’s okay, we’re going to disseminate pamphlets.’ That’s not enough when the anti-science messages are sophisticated, targeting vulnerable populations and really tailoring anti-science messages to groups that believe them.”