Before COVID-19 escalated into a pandemic, World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus cautioned world leaders against another issue that may arise. “[We’re] not just fighting an epidemic; we’re fighting an infodemic,” he argued then.
According to the WHO, an infodemic occurs when there is “an excessive amount of information about a problem” that can “spread misinformation, disinformation, and rumors during a health emergency.” It poses a risk to public health since the information available may not be wholly accurate and could cause confusion and distrust. Moreover, given the global scope of accessible platforms like social media, fake news and other forms of misinformation could easily reach millions of people.
Why communication matters now
Dr. Jan Bernadas, an assistant professor from the DLSU Communication Department, explained that there is a high demand for information now due to the uncertainty caused by a new and infectious disease. “People do not want to be placed in a vacuum, in a place where you do not have information. That is true during a pandemic [and] even in our personal lives,” he argued.
Bernadas’ sentiments were shared by Dr. John Robert Bautista, a health communication scholar at the University of Texas at Austin. During a webinar titled On Viruses and Viral Information: A Webinar on Health Communication and Media Research, Bautista highlighted the need to ensure that the public receives accurate, timely information about COVID-19. “For you to have good health outcomes during a pandemic, you need to have good health information,” he advised.
However, Bautista’s advice is difficult to heed given the proliferation of health misinformation online, ranging from simple satirical posts to manipulated content. The former is easy to spot, and people are less likely to take these seriously; the latter, however, is specifically modified to deceive readers or viewers, making it more difficult to verify. An example Bautista cited consisted of quotes from international public figures like Queen Elizabeth II on online posts, which were edited to show significantly different statements from the original.
Apart from accuracy, the accessibility of information on COVID-19 is also an issue since most materials being disseminated are either in English or in Filipino. For Cristjan Bael, founding director of Visayan Youth Matters, this becomes “a challenge for non-native speakers of [those] languages.” Bael also lamented the lack of media literacy among Filipinos who often rely on social media for news updates. His concerns are consistent with findings from prior studies that Bautista expounded on during his talk. A combination of poor literacy, frequent social media use, and a high level of confirmation bias has turned the Philippines into a “fertile ground for health misinformation”, Bautista said.
Though misinformation like fake news tends to make rounds quickly among social media users, institutions like the WHO and the Department of Health (DOH) have taken steps to debunk these false claims. However, as Bernadas found, the distribution of misinformation has reached spaces like chat groups where mitigation can be challenging. “What is often not studied in social media and not understood by a lot of people is that social media can make things invisible. You cannot penetrate [chat groups] unless they are public or you ask permission,” he said.
In spite of this, Bautista argued that conscious efforts can be made to curb the spread of health misinformation. Past research on misinformation during the height of the Zika virus showed that mitigation can be done through social and algorithmic correction. Social media platforms like Facebook have already implemented algorithmic correction, which is used to fact-check posts and actively warn users against those containing false information.
Meanwhile, social correction happens through public posts and private messages. Users can respectfully correct each other by responding to misinformation with research-backed claims. The proactive sharing of factually correct information also helps prepare people in the event that they may encounter fake news after. Though others may be resistant toward mitigation, the combined efforts of a transparent government and responsible social media users can significantly help in counteracting health misinformation.
The right course of action
Given the nature of the crisis, it is important to continuously frame the COVID-19 pandemic as a matter of public health rather than a legal or crime-related problem. This, Bernadas stated, would lead the government to focus on health-based interventions that the people should know about. It should also underscore the need “for scientists and doctors to really be part of the discussion.”
Though he commended DOH’s daily virtual presser, which occasionally features epidemiologists and other specialists, Bernadas believes that these professionals should also play a role in policy-making. “When you bring scientists and medical doctors into the discussion and you give them [a] voice, I think there is some form of clarity,” he expressed.
On the other hand, Bael is focused on boosting awareness about COVID-19 by improving accessibility. As it stands, he sees that “[only] a handful of people see the importance of accurate, sensitive, emphatic, and culturally-appropriate health information.” His organization’s response to this problem was launching #OneVisayas: EdukAKSYON Kontra COVID-19, an initiative that serves as Visayan Youth Matters’ “means to bridge the health gap in relaying important information” about the pandemic.
“The main objective of this project is to help local communities better understand the current health crisis through laymanizing important information,” Bael expounds. They have already created informational brochures about COVID-19 in Cebuano, Waray, Hiligaynon, and Kinaray-a. These materials are then reproduced and distributed by youth-led organizations and Sanggunian Kabataan councils in different parts of Visayas.
Envisioning the aftermath
Much like the COVID-19 pandemic, there is no definite end date in sight for the infodemic, too. Regardless, it is clear that several systemic changes must be made in response to the many issues that people encountered. Among these would be the improvement of basic literacy among Filipinos as a way to combat misinformation. Bautista likened this approach to that of a vaccine, which takes time to develop but can serve as a long-term solution. He admitted that “it would take decades for you to prepare the population,” but it can be accomplished if it is initiated early on.
The most critical change in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic must be seen in the Philippine healthcare system. Recalling the challenges faced by medical frontliners at the grassroots level, Bael hopes that the government will look into providing them with better support in the future. “Many barangay health units, city health units, [and] rural health units are undermanned and this affects the quality of healthcare service they can give to the people,” he concludes.