Dr Chico Camargo is an interdisciplinary researcher who develops and applies computational tools to study complex systems, collective human behaviour, public opinion dynamics and culture change.
As vaccines against the coronavirus are finally deployed, there is a growing concern about anti-vaccination campaigns fueled by online misinformation. An ‘infodemic’, the claim goes, threatens to undermine responses to the pandemic and, ultimately, vaccination efforts. There’s only one problem: the term ‘infodemic’ itself is not backed up by science, and its use can potentially do more harm than good.
In 2020, the term ‘infodemic’ rose from relative obscurity to international prominence. Its origins were fairly inconspicuous, first appearing in a World Health Organisation (WHO) situation report in February 2020. “The 2019-nCoV outbreak and response”, the WHO wrote at the time “has been accompanied by a massive ‘infodemic’–an over-abundance of information–some accurate and some not–that makes it hard for people to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance when they need it.”
WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus re-iterated the sentiment two weeks later, saying “We are not just fighting an epidemic; we’re fighting an infodemic. Fake news spreads faster and more easily than this virus, and is just as dangerous”. In the following months, journalists and scientists jumped on the term, discussing the ‘infodemic’ from all possible angles, from healthcare to AI and social media to the importance of libraries. To this day, little has changed in this regard.
It’s not surprising. Few topics are potentially more serious and threatening than the spread of mis- and disinformation during a pandemic. However, all this hype hides a basic problem: only few have actually made the effort to ask if the ‘infodemic’ concept makes much sense, and if its underlying claims are properly backed up by science. Unfortunately, there is a lot of research to suggest that neither is the case.
Epidemiological metaphors for communicative issues are by no means a new phenomenon. They also quickly run into problems:
First, real epidemics have a well-defined cause, such as a virus whose strains can be sequenced, identified, and traced back to their origins. The spread of information, on the other hand, often involves multiple independent sources: different actors create and disseminate information with multiple intents, aiming to inform, promote alternative versions of a story, and in some cases to harm. This makes it difficult to say what should count as the ‘infodemic’ and what should not.
Second, (mis)information is not infectious. This, too, is an idea with a long history. According to this narrative, people are susceptible to “viruses of the mind”, as the British evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins would put it, and information and ideas would spread from person to person like pathogens. As attractive as the idea sounds, it ignores a large body of research in cognitive science that demonstrates how we often make active decisions in how we choose what information to consume, what to believe, what to share and whom to share it with. Contrary to popular belief, we are not simply ‘infected’ with information.
A third issue is that information actually does not spread like an epidemic. Certain pieces of information spread in a broadcast fashion, like news articles or tweets. Others diffuse more slowly, and from person to person, and depend on all sorts of social behaviour.
To put it simply, fast and wide do not imply viral. These differences between real viruses and information become even starker in the presence of the spread of information looks very different from how germs or viruses disseminate (even when you take super-spreaders into account).
But what about the ‘over-abundance of information […] that makes it hard for people to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance when they need it’, as the WHO claims?
Evidence suggests that this claim should also be taken with caution, at least in the Global North. Information abundance is a common feature in modern media environments, and while many people perceive information overload, research has also found that many seem to cope well with it. The reason we can still function in societies with 24/7 timelines and newsfeeds is because we are good at being selectively attentive, and have developed multiple cognitive strategies to deal with too much information over time.
These findings seem to be borne out by preliminary studies conducted over the last year, which suggest that many people had a fairly good idea of where to look for reliable information around COVID-19. Respondents in various countries stated that, for instance, the news media have helped them understand the crisis. They also expressed consistently high levels of trust in (health) experts, scientists and health organisations and said that these helped them to make sense of the situation. And while this does not apply equally to every country (for instance, Brazil, India, and the United States tell a different story), overall the evidence points against the “information overload” hypothesis.
It is true that more research will be necessary to understand the consequences of the information environment we built during the pandemic. Still, the evidence from cognitive science and communication research suggest that any claims that there is an oversupply of (mis)information during the COVID-19 pandemic that differs markedly from pre-pandemic times, or that people are not able to navigate an oversupply of information, should be taken with a pinch of salt.
This spells trouble for the ‘infodemic’ metaphor. Not only is the metaphor itself misleading, but the definition set out by the WHO—and widely adopted by others—doesn’t hold up when faced with some of the available evidence. Admittedly, metaphors can be helpful to make things less abstract. But they can also be harmful, for instance when they obfuscate the complexity of a situation, or provide cover for political leaders keen to exploit a situation.
The latter point is not purely theoretical. Between January and July 2020, 18 governments around the world had already added counter-measures in response to the ‘infodemic’ via decrees and emergency legislation, some of them with the potential to stifle media freedom, freedom of speech and ultimately the health of the public sphere.
It is clear that unreliable information around health events can have real consequences, especially when much depends on the public’s trust in science and vaccines. But as convenient as it might be to use the language of epidemiology to explain communicative phenomena, an ‘infodemic crisis’ validated by scientists and the media might result in solutions that ignore the real problems and structural origins of problems such as vaccine misinformation. This can lead to ineffective policies at best, and to violations of human rights at worst.
So where do we go from here? Tell journalists and academics to start over, but pick a different metaphor? No. We slow down and embrace caution and rigour. Metaphors such as ‘infodemic’ are so appealing precisely because they are intuitive and reduce complexity, but depending on the issue in question, we also have terms such as ‘false information’, ‘propaganda’, or ‘conspiracy theory’—terms that are well-recognised and reasonably precise. A headline saying ‘Scientists Concerned About Increasing Misinformation Around COVID-19’ is already more precise than ‘Scientists Warn of COVID-19 Infodemic’. If it means doing better science, and finding better responses and solutions for the pandemic it might be worth sacrificing a few catchy headlines.
This blog is based on the article ‘Autopsy of a metaphor” The origins, use and blind spots of the ‘infodemic’, published in the journal New Media and Society.