The flood of information, including false or misleading information, in digital and physical environments during an acute public health event, which leads to confusion, risk-taking, and behaviours that can harm health, and lead to mistrust in health authorities and public health response.
The word is a combination of “info” and “epidemic” and was first used by the WHO in 2003 to describe the overabundance of misinformation that accompanied the outbreak of SARS. In 2020, the WHO said the infodemic phenomenon had escalated to a level that requires a coordinated and ongoing response during the COVID-19 pandemic. This prompted the first-ever WHO infodemiology conference to address the issue.
Like pathogens in epidemics, misinformation and disinformation spreads further and faster and adds complexity to the health emergency response.
An Infodemic involves the spread of:
- Misinformation or inaccurate, false, or wrong information that is spread without an intention to mislead. The danger is that misinformation can lead to widespread rumours that can cause harm, even though the person spreading false information does not intend to cause harm. There has been much pseudoscientific (not based on scientific fact) misinformation that has been spread rapidly and widely on social media that has caused confusion and uncertainty about the nature of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, its transmission, and how to prevent it. This has led to ordinary people making choices (such as refusing to wear masks) that ignore scientific advice and that can result in their getting infected or passing the infection onto others.
- Disinformation is false or misleading information that is spread deliberately to deceive. It can include government propaganda, fake news designed to manipulate people for political or financial gain, rumours, and conspiracy theories. Conspiracy theories are beliefs that certain events or situations are secretly manipulated behind the scenes by powerful forces with negative intent. These can be real beliefs or they can be used to manipulate and control others. Hashtags such as #Scamdemic, #shamdemic, #Plandemic, #Coronascam are used by American conspiracy theorists and intended to discredit scientific narratives of the pandemic.
TIP: Journalists should use credible sources and fact check all information they are given.