The Infodemic & ‘fake news’: what can laboratories do to tackle scientific misinformation?
Individuals are sharing online now more than ever. Morning coffee on your feed? Check. Neil’s big promotion? Seen it. Even your aunt’s second cousin’s dog probably has an Instagram account, showing off the #dogslife.
These examples of online connectivity are harmless, but what happens when it is not a dog on Instagram but an elected public official on Twitter or a breaking story in the morning news? It becomes much more difficult to discern what is fact and what is an opinion (or flat-out fiction), especially when it is all presented as reality.
Written by Nicole Hawkins, Lab Innovations.
The discussion surrounding the COVID-19 outbreak is just one example of mass-spread misinformation. Microbiologist Dr Elisa Granato woke up to the news of her death plastered all over social media in April 2020. The internet claimed that she had died following the administration of a COVID-19 vaccine under clinical trial, in which she was one of the first UK volunteers. Dr Granato tweeted that morning that she was, in fact, ‘doing fine’ and requested that people do not share the article in an attempt to avoid giving it attention (a request that was very much ignored, even within the thread of her tweet). This is just a glimpse into the misinformation and conspiracy theories circulated during the pandemic.
The mass of false information online relating to COVID-19 has been called the ‘Infodemic’. This is defined as an oversupply of information – including false or misleading information – that spreads alongside a disease outbreak. The infodemic was recognised as a major challenge in the COVID-19 pandemic by the World Health Organization (WHO).
The infodemic has been a global challenge, and the spread of misinformation amongst those in the UK led to vaccine hesitancy (and protest), a lack of public cooperation with contact-tracing efforts, and non-compliance with public health measures. Unproven cures and opinions marketed as absolute truth also combated the pandemic response. The consequences of misinformation have been widespread and severe, and this is just one example of the issue – there is plenty of misinformation and ‘fake news’ surrounding other important challenges such as climate change and space exploration too.
So how can we prevent the spread of scientific misinformation and the consequences? It must be a collective effort between governments, social media and digital platform corporations, and science and healthcare professionals. Policymakers can initiate effective measures to tackle the challenge, social media firms can implement more effective reporting processes (which is already happening somewhat) or inform users when incorrect posts have become common and widely read.
But what can scientists working in laboratories do to help?
Firstly, it is crucial to understand why communities have questions or concerns, and it is essential to learn what they are. The information vacuum in a pandemic, or any other scientific crisis, is likely to be filled by misinformation. It is, therefore, crucial to listen to people, conduct research to identify their key concerns and provide accurate and measured responses.
Secondly, professionals must be trained in communication relating to issues in their respective fields. In the absence of training, they do not have sufficient skills to communicate messages clearly. Once trained, influential and reliable experts can actively engage in advising people in a way they understand.
Finally, it is essential to encourage and empower various communities to take action. It is not enough to wait for misinformation; individuals should be encouraged to proactively share information through trusted sources, promptly and transparently.
Just as the infodemic has been a challenge throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, false information will continue to be a challenge in future scientific crises. Tackling misinformation will be just as important as any other response, especially where collective action is crucial for safety, survival and progress.
If you would like the opportunity to discuss current challenges in the industry, don’t forget to register your interest in attending Lab Innovations, 2 & 3 November at NEC, Birmingham.