The Infodemic: Emerging Public Health Challenges

Zoe Lawrence-Haughey –  University of Western Australia


Although misinformation has always existed, the rise of social media has pushed it to more catastrophic heights. Dubbed as an ‘infodemic’. It is set to be the next big challenge facing public health professionals – and it is already here, as seen in the social response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The spread of misinformation can actively hamper effective public health response and increase levels of distrust towards health professionals and institutions. Early examples during the COVID-19 pandemic included panic buying of certain materials in order to stockpile them in the event of resource scarcity, due to messages spread across social media, the result of which was the creation of actual shortages. Important to note here is that misinformation is not always intentional, and tends to stem from a lack of knowledge and understanding of the topic, while disinformation is the promotion of incorrect materials as part of an agenda which seeks to disrupt or harm.

Social media platforms have designated algorithms that reward users’ interests by showing more material of a similar nature. Unfortunately this means that if someone stumbles across an anti-vaccination post and engages with it somehow, even leaving a comment to criticise it, the algorithm will adapt to show them more anti-vaccination materials.

Social media companies have taken steps to actively remove posts, or at least contribute a notice as to whether the material being shared has been reported to contain false information, and links to where people can go to learn more. But this response is not always rapid enough. An example of this is ‘plandemic’, a conspiracy theory video which received over 8 million views across social media before it was removed. The issue here is that public trust can be hindered, leading to poorer health outcomes as people begin to question whether their healthcare providers are actually knowledgeable about their medical and allied health practices.

This raises the question of how the ‘infodemic’ can be addressed appropriately, and how to regain the public trust in healthcare. Avenues through which this may be accomplished include enhanced social surveillance on social media, although this does have ethical implications as well.

Certain actions, such as accepting or refusing vaccination has been likened in some cases to wearing a seatbelt. The seatbelt’s primary expected function is to minimise damage to an individual in a road traffic crash, much like a vaccination’s expected function is to minimise harm from communicable disease. However, not wearing a seatbelt is a finable offence. Another comparison that could be made is veganism, in which the argument could be made that individuals retain the final say of what goes into their body, choosing what they eat, drink, and what vaccinations they receive. A common argument therefore against vaccination is that it removes bodily autonomy.

Regardless of these arguments, vaccination has been proved many times to be safe and effective, and is listed as one of public health’s greatest achievements in the past few decades.

Other strategies to consider include the analysis of underlying psychological drivers that may influence how people respond to misinformation, focusing education efforts on those who may be the most influential members of communities, and the introduction of legislation requiring social media companies to reduce the potential for misinformation being presented to users.

A further challenge is that the correction of misinformation itself is not always easily applied, nor is it always needed. Small and inconsequential misinformation, such as stating the wrong year for when a cancer treatment was first introduced may not result in any harm and could be purely resulting from human error. On the flip side, correcting misinformation can be done in a harmful way. If correcting someone, this process should still be done with respect, as accusing individuals of purposely acting in a way that could harm others can make them defensive, and encourage internalised stigma. Sometimes people are merely afraid or curious, and being accused of having a more hateful agenda can reinforce or justify their fear and distrust.

Over the next few years public health professionals and health practitioners will need to work on how to deliver information in ways that are accessible, understandable, and acceptable to all, and develop strategies to reduce the strain of misinformation and disinformation.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has developed a public health research agenda for managing infodemics, to foster a coordinated and evidence-based approach to ensure universal access to reliable health information. The research agenda comprises five focus areas for accelerated action. These streams span the evaluation of infodemic impacts, how to study them, what drives them, approaches to better manage them, and considerations for operationalizing new tools for both the science and practice of infodemic management. This agenda is designed to serve as a reference point for partners, research agencies, and academia towards building global capacity for better managing present and future health threats.


First published on the Council of Academic Public Health Institutions Australasia (CAPHIA) webpage. CAPHIA is the peak organisation that represents public health in academic institutions that offer programs, research and community service activity in public health.

Its purpose is to maintain high quality academic standards in the education and development of public health practitioners and researchers, to lead and represent public health education in the tertiary education sector, and to be a respected voice and advocate for the development of public health professionals and researchers.


Photo Credit: World Health Organization

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