Infodemic management for strong emergency response and routine health programmes in Malaysia and Brunei Darussalam
06 March 2023
An infodemic is a serious public health threat
During disease outbreaks and public health emergencies, people are often flooded with an abundance of information in the digital and physical space — which includes both accurate and mis- and disinformation — what we now know as an infodemic. An infodemic is a major public health issue because it causes confusion and shapes risk-taking behaviours that can harm the health of individuals and communities and erode trust in health authorities. It can also intensify or lengthen outbreaks when people are unsure about what they need to do to protect their health and the health of people around them. This is why managing the Infodemic is crucial to helping populations make safe and informed choices backed by science, evidence, and facts.
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, WHO has been supporting the Ministries of Health in Malaysia and Brunei Darussalam with the collection and analysis of infodemic insights. To further build the capacities of the Ministries and to integrate this discipline effectively and systematically into routine public health programmes and in response to emergencies, a 4-day training on infodemic management was organized in Malaysia, attended by 50 participants from across various units and divisions of both Ministries of Health.
Infodemic management requires a multidisciplinary and a multisectoral approach
Drawing on the multidisciplinary nature of Infodemic management, the training covered an array of topics including an overview of risk communication and community engagement (RCCE), the information ecosystem and its impact on health systems, multisource data collection, information voids and more. Presenters provided a comprehensive look at topics such as behavioural science in the context of Infodemic management, social media listening, fact checking and important, emerging disciplines like dark social. Numerous guest speakers presented global and regional case studies with practical examples of the concepts learned so far and how they were implemented in different contexts. This was followed by group activities and table-top exercises during which participants were able to apply what they learned and share cross-country knowledge and experiences.
"Addressing the Infodemic requires a multi-disciplinary and whole-of-society approach, one that enables rapid generation of data intelligence for evidence-based and actionable decision and policy making," said Dr Rabindra Abeyasinghe, WHO Representative to Malaysia, Brunei Darussalam and Singapore, during his opening remarks. He also noted that “it is critically important to acquire the skills to manage an infodemic that spreads not only during public health events but also during the implementation of routine health programmes.”
During the session on “Social media listening for infodemic management and social media listening tools and techniques”, Lucy Lavery, a social listening expert from the United Kingdom, noted that "public health professionals can use social listening approaches to respond to the Infodemic and design adequate interventions to proactively promote healthy behaviour. When questions, concerns and information voids start to emerge, social media listening helps us understand the questions from people, which can indicate a lack of reliable, clear or accessible information on a health topic."
As in public health, prevention is key
A lack of reliable information is a major challenge with an infodemic and is very often what fuels it. The best opportunity for public health professionals to intervene in the rampant spread of mis- and disinformation is to communicate prior to a crisis with the sharing of timely and accurate information. “Information voids” pose a major challenge, occurring when people are seeking information but finding a lack of credible sources. Many behaviors that negatively impact individuals and communities stem from this lack on information on a particular topic at a specific point in time.
Additionally, a growing body of research shows that filling in information voids timely and utilizing pre-bunking tactics, versus the process of debunking or myth busting, is a much more effective way to boost people’s resilience to misinformation and “inoculate” them against the Infodemic. This involves exposing people to how misinformation works using harmless, fictional examples which can then boost their defenses to false claims and help them identify attempts to distort facts.
Filling in information voids and educating people, bringing together the different evidence and data that is needed to understand the potentially harmful human behaviors, and engaging everyone involved in the response will ultimately help improve and protect the public’s health.
This engagement requires coordination and alignment across stakeholders, a point that was highly emphasized by facilitators and guest speakers, as well as during the hands-on activities and discussions conducted by working groups. Infodemic management and interventions against mis- and disinformation is no longer the sole responsibility of a single ministry, WHO or health communicators – it is a combined effort that requires societal inclusion and strengthening partnerships with all communities. Engaging with diverse networks is essential for building trust, relationships, investing in communities’ resilience to the Infodemic and closing information voids in a timely manner.
Dr Tan Seok Hong from the Disease Control Division at the Ministry of Health, Malaysia, noted that, “if we do not tackle rumours and misinformation, it can affect trust and impact the effectiveness of our public health measures and the overall public health response to the pandemic. For this reason, it is important to have Infodemic management systems in place.”
Dr Rosvinder Singh, a participant from the Ministry of Health Malaysia, stated "this training has helped us to have a better perspective on how infodemic management can be conducted systematically and illustrated how different types of social listening and data collection methods can be applied to make an informed decision or policy."
The overall benefit of the event was summarized by Djordje Novakovic, a Strategic and Risk Communication expert from WHO, who noted that “this training combines risk communication, community engagement, social and behavioural sciences and infodemic management for a very inclusive and structured approach that can strengthen our emergency preparedness, readiness and response capacities and our routine health programmes and support better health outcomes in countries.”
This training was made possible thanks to donations from the Governments of Japan and the United States of America.