Amid the global COVID-19 pandemic the WHO is “battling the trolls and conspiracy theorists” as misinformation spreads at a rapid pace.
Rabat – The World Health Organization (WHO) is advancing its efforts to stop an “infodemic” of COVID-19 misinformation.
On August 25, the WHO elaborated on its work to “immunize the public” against fake claims in a renewed anti-misinformation campaign. “We’re not just battling the virus,” WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in a UN statement. “We’re also battling the trolls and conspiracy theorists that push misinformation and undermine the outbreak response.”
The issue has become such a problem that the WHO organized the world’s first “Infodemiology conference” in June.
Understanding the infodemic
The WHO’s Tim Nguyen leads a team on managing this type of challenge. “Infodemics have already happened in one way or another in past epidemics,” he told the United Nations Foundation. “What’s happening right now is something of a global scale, where people are connected through different means and share information more quickly,” Nguyen added.
Much of the false information about COVID-19 appears to show a preexisting distrust of public officials, global institutions and experts. The WHO statement highlighted the conspiracy video “Plandemic” as an example of harmful misinformation that questions authorities and makes wild accusations.
These examples have prompted the WHO to launch the “Pause. Take care before you share.” campaign that highlights the dangers of sharing false information. The hashtag campaign aims to spread awareness through accessible infographics and multimedia and falls within a broader UN campaign called “Verified.”
Consequences of misinformation
The UN and WHO have attempted to raise awareness through information campaigns because of the grave threat an infodemic poses. Misinformation has led to food shortages during the COVID-19 crisis after online misinformation prompted panic hoarding. Social media reports on the efficacy of drinking methanol alcohol caused the death of hundreds of Iranians.
On a broader scale, misinformation leads to beliefs that pose a threat to public health in general. A growing anti-vaccination movement could threaten a successful roll-out of an eventual vaccine. The WHO stated that millions of people are still unsure whether vaccines are safe and whether a COVID-19 vaccine is under development for ulterior motives.
The WHO itself was implicated in a conspiracy theory that claimed the global health body was “influenced” by China. The premise of the conspiracy requires ignorance on the practical operation of the WHO and a fundamental misunderstanding of its powers. Nonetheless, some mainstream Western politicians pushed the conspiracy theory and demanded an investigation into the WHO as the crisis accelerated.
With the infodemic, the WHO faces the particular problem that combating misinformation requires correcting already-published false material. “Countering fake news or rumours is actually only responding or mitigating when it’s too late,” said Nguyen. As the WHO makes an effort to reduce misinformation, citizens can do their part by checking sources and avoiding sharing anything suspicious.