The questions we need to ask before the next infodemic

First Draft
Oct 5, 2020 · 6 min read

First Draft’s head of policy and impact, Tommy Shane, explores what questions we need to ask to provide better information during the next pandemic.

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“Covid-19 is neither the first nor the last health emergency we will face. My fellow scientists estimate that we will face a pandemic or health emergency at least once every five years from here on. There is a chance that this is the optimistic scenario. The reality could be far worse.”

Sally Davies, former Chief Medical Officer for England, writing for The Guardian

What could we do better next time?

This is the question we need to be asking now. As we emerge from the immediate aftermath of the crisis, and the infodemic begins to stabilize into a new normal, we must take this opportunity to take a moment and reflect.

Where did we succeed in getting the right information to the right people at the right time? Where did we fail?

At First Draft, we have spent much of the summer tracking the infodemic and its numerous implications, including an analysis of 9,722 fact checks related to coronavirus between January and June.

What has emerged is a series of questions.

We lay them out here to spark conversations among reporters, fact checkers, platforms and researchers, focusing on how we get the right information to the right people at the right time during a pandemic.

1. How do we best respond to questions about origin, when limited information is available?

What do “The Simpsons,” Dettol and Dean Koontz’s novel “The Eyes of Darkness” have in common?

They were all thought to have predicted the coronavirus pandemic.

Though of varying concern, each speaks to a need for an origin story — an answer to the question: Where did this come from? How did it get here?

As Claire Wardle, First Draft’s US director, told the UK Parliament during a session on coronavirus misinformation: “It’s easy to dismiss conspiracies, but we have to understand why they’re taking hold.

“There isn’t a good origin story for the virus, and so this information vacuum is allowing misinformation to circulate.”

The problem is that during a pandemic, we don’t know the answers to these questions. Limited information, and possible government interference, mean fact checkers may struggle with limited evidence to provide a simple answer. In their place, casual, wild speculation and strategic disinformation will triumph.

How can we best address the origin problem? In some cases, might it be better to credibly speculate about what might be the case, instead of failing to fill in the gaps?

2. How can we best support collective sensemaking, when at first all we can do is falsify claims?

In March, crisis informatics researcher Kate Starbird shared an explanation of a social process that follows crises called collective sensemaking: the endeavor to make sense of a crisis by filling in information gaps at an individual and group level. Importantly, it is driven by anxiety and often panic, leading some to taking life-threatening actions.

One of the problems of falsifying claims, such as rejecting claims over the origin of the virus or its alleged treatments, is that they do not fill the gaps in people’s understanding. On the contrary, they may stifle that process by rejecting the information being used to make sense of things.

By contrast, as researchers have noted in relation to other public health crises, rumors will often better serve people’s emotional needs than the accurate information available at the time.

Social media undoubtedly accelerates and amplifies rumor in these scenarios, but it may also be able to help. Just as researchers have explored how to use technology to facilitate distributed sensemaking in hospitals, can social media platforms develop features to safely support the natural and inevitable process of sensemaking following a crisis? How can reporters and fact checkers support?

3. How do information needs change over time, and how can they best be met?

The information needs during a pandemic change over time. Put simply, at first we want to know about origin, then about treatments, and finally attention turns toward public policy.

Connected to this trajectory is a transition in the source and format of misinformation: as the focus moves from online rumors to policy decisions, so too does the kind of misinformation from memes to statements from politicians. These require different skill sets and procedures to verify, and in some cases require more resources. As we noted in our analysis of 9,722 fact checks related to coronavirus, “As the months wore on, the topics that fact checkers addressed increasingly drew on complex political and social phenomena.”

We need a more nuanced understanding of these trajectories, something crisis informatics researchers have already begun to explore.

We also need to understand whether constraints (such as skills and resources) and incentives (such as Facebook’s payments for fact checks) disrupt fact checkers’ ability to focus on their missions, how this dynamic plays out through the phases of a pandemic, and if the public need can be better served with preparation or emergency support.

4. Which online communities use fact checks during a pandemic, and for what purposes?

It is possible to measure which fact checks in the dataset received the highest number of interactions — the sum of reactions, comments and shares on posts in public groups and pages — using data from CrowdTangle, a Facebook-owned data analytics tool.

But these interactions only tell us that people interacted in some way.

Many questions remain: Who were they, and why were they interacting? Was it in the way fact checkers would want? And what would that even be?

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The top ten fact checks related to coronavirus published between Jan-June 2020, ranked by number of interactions (likes, comments, shares, etc.) in public spaces on Facebook. Data from CrowdTangle. Read full methodology for more information.

5. What kinds of translation procedures would help critical information to reach communities around the world?

As Poynter has remarked in relation to a viral rumor, “This is a perfect illustration of what ‘infodemic’ is… Just like viruses, misinformation knows no borders, especially during such a crisis.”

But while viruses and viral misinformation might not acknowledge borders, credible information does.

Over half (54.3 per cent) of the fact checks we studied were in either Spanish or English. This breakdown to some extent reflects the relative number of speakers globally, with the notable exception of Chinese, which accounted for fewer than 1 per cent of the fact checks.

However, almost half (54) of 109 major languages were not represented at all, amounting to tens of millions of speakers.

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The fact checkers we studied were not the only source of credible information during the pandemic. But questions remain.

Were some people unable to access fact checks in their spoken languages? What was the impact of this? Can emergency human translation support help communities in the immediate aftermath of an outbreak?

6. What elements of the Covid-19 experience can we draw on to tell better stories next time?

As a society, we know more than we did in January. We know what it’s like to gradually learn of a pandemic, for the numbers to be confusing, what “R” means (or at least that it matters), and that, in the end, the origin of a virus may just be a market, as was originally suspected.

Inevitably, the coronavirus will likely be used as a biological and social benchmark for comparison with future outbreaks. How can we best anticipate this?

How can we draw on the new understanding of pandemics and infodemics? Are there numbers, concepts, metaphors, visuals or tools we should re-use and build upon? What worked that we should replicate?

Equally, how will the experience of coronavirus be used against efforts to achieve calm and effective action? Can we explore risks through simulations, or “red teaming”?

— —

These questions will take some time to answer, and will require people with different skills to do it. They are also not exhaustive; they are a starting point for the process of reflection that we must now confront.

But I hope they will contribute to a thorough examination of what happened, and what we need to do next.

First Draft Footnotes

We work to protect communities around the world from harmful information.

First Draft

Written by

We work to protect communities across the world from harmful information.

First Draft Footnotes

We work to protect communities from harmful information, sharing tips and resources to build resilience and improve access to accurate information.

First Draft

Written by

We work to protect communities across the world from harmful information.

First Draft Footnotes

We work to protect communities from harmful information, sharing tips and resources to build resilience and improve access to accurate information.

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