WHO publishes public health research agenda for managing infodemics

21/02/2021

In February of 2020, when much of the world was just wrapping its mind around the COVID-19 fundamentals, and trying to navigate the flood of information about it, WHO Director-General, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, raised the alarm that “we’re not just fighting an epidemic, we’re fighting an infodemic.” 

During a WHO online consultation that was held in April 2020 a framework for managing the COVID-19 infodemic was developed. Within that framework, 50 key actions were listed, one of which was to hold the first WHO infodemiology conference. 

Fast forward three months to June, when that first conference came to life. WHO convened more than 100 experts from 20 different disciplines and 35 different countries to define this nascent field of science for infodemicmanagement. From this conference, a vibrant community of research and practice was born, and a public health research agenda was established to implement guidance to understand, measure and respond to infodemics, so that going forward, people in every corner of the world have timely access to understandable health information and advice for making good health choices.   

At the conference, the professionals split into multi-disciplinary teams and workshopped for days. From those discussions, five streams of thinking emerged for where to focus infodemic research.   

Within the five streams, 65 research questions were developed and prioritized so that the practice of infodemicmanagement has a focus, structure, a methodology that’s rooted in evidence and room to further evolve as a discipline. 

Here is the public health research agenda for infodemic management:

Stream 1: Measuring and monitoring the impact of infodemics during health emergencies  

1.1. Standardize taxonomies and classifications  

1.2. Develop new metrics to measure and quantify infodemics  

1.3. Analyse and triangulate data from multiple sources  

1.4. Improve evaluation approaches for infodemic interventions  

Stream 2: Detecting and understanding the spread and impact of infodemics  

2.1. Understand how information originates, evolves and spreads on different platforms and channels  

2.2. Assess the role of actors, influencers, platforms and channels  

2.3. Understand how misinformation affects behaviour in different populations  

2.4. Develop regulatory and ethical principles to mitigate the spread and propagation of harmful health information  

Stream 3: Responding and deploying interventions that protect against the infodemic and mitigate its harmful effects  

3.1. Design a behavioural change model applicable to infodemic management  

3.2. Intervention design for different levels of action to mitigate the infodemics  

Stream 4: Evaluating infodemic interventions and strengthening resilience of individuals and communities to infodemics  

4.1. Develop interventions that address individual, community, cultural and societal factors affecting trust and resilience to misinformation  

4.2. Understand and learn from the way misinformation has affected behaviour among different populations and in different contexts for specific infodemics  

4.3. Identify factors associated with successful infodemic management by health authorities, the media, civil society, the private sector and other stakeholders  

Stream 5: Promoting the development, adaptation and application of tools for managing infodemics  

5.1. Use implementation research evidence in programme improvement and policy development  

5.2. Promote evidence-based interventions and approaches between countries  

5.3. Improve effectiveness and response times to the infodemic during acute health events  

Infodemics are as much about combatting mis- and disinformation as they are about supplying good information where there are existing information voids. As technology evolves, so do the methods for infodemics to perpetuate. With increasingly sophisticated technology, infodemics can evade detection and prey on those who are vulnerable and least suspecting. 

Infodemics are multi-faceted and impact individuals and communities, causing physical harm, stigma, violent aggression among community members and dismissal of proven public health measures. Therefore, the public healthresearch agenda is a living resource. It must work for policymakers and health institutions, for private-sector players, for community leaders and for individuals young, old, rural, urban and everything in between.  

The public health research agenda for infodemic management can be used by WHO, partners, research agencies and academia as a reference in identifying key research and evidence gaps to underpin infodemic management interventions and their evaluation.  

The next steps will be to develop reviews of evidence in each of the five workstreams, build out the community of research and practice to track implementation of the agenda, build a competency framework for an infodemiology skillset and develop online tools to train people across all of society to become infodemic managers. 

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