COVID-19 ISO Insights

Why the WHO is Concerned about Social Media's Role With the Spread of Coronavirus

February 24, 2020

By: David Geller, CPCU

“More than anything, the greatest source of anxiety has been the tortuous process of watching the news unfold on social media. It has mirrored and amplified [an interviewee’s] fears to levels he’s never experience before. He and his girlfriend have suffered insomnia and multiple panic attacks. They are terrified of contracting the virus and about her family’s well-being.”— Excerpt from an MIT Technology Review article.

“‘There’s nothing to do but read the news, and the news gets worse every day.’”—Interviewee to MIT Technology Review.

If you are a reader who resides in the Northeast, perhaps there have been occasions in which snowy weather has forced you to stay inside for a day, if not multiple days. At that point, boredom may compel you to fixate your eyes to your phone for longer than you would care to admit as you watch a string of videos or track a hot rumor that is spreading on social media. All things considered, this is mostly harmless behavior. But what happens when it is not?

As it turns out, it appears that the World Health Organization (WHO) has coined a term for this: “infodemic.” Specifically, the WHO refers to an infodemic as “an over-abundance of information – some accurate and some not – that makes it hard for people to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance when they need it.” The agency reportedly declared coronavirus a “massive infodemic” on February 2nd.

In the case of high volumes of individuals in China reportedly forced to stay inside to avoid exposure to the novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV), this rampant spread of information on social media, per Technology Review, may be amplifying already high levels of anxiety through the distribution of disinformation—this development appears to align with a 2019 Wired story on a study which concluded that false news was 70% more likely to be retweeted than true stories.

One example of how the spread of disinformation can reportedly exacerbate health issues, according to Time, is the antivax movement. The reported spread of false information on social media potentially affects a community’s ability to reach “herd immunity”, which Time defines as “the ability of a well-inoculated community to protect the few of its members who can’t be vaccinated due to age, illness or a weakened immune system.” Per Time, at least 95% of a community needs to be vaccinated to maintain herd immunity. It appears the effects of disinformation may now also be manifesting itself during the coronavirus outbreak. One of the effects the WHO is reportedly concerned with is the dissemination of "false prevention measures or cures."

WHO takes action to keep focus on the facts

Technology Review reports that this infodemic has compelled the WHO to respond by, in part:

  • Partnering with Twitter, Facebook, Tencent, and TikTok, in attempts to stymie misinformation.
  • Launching a Google SOS alert that would enable WHO information to the top of people’s search results for queries that related to coronavirus.
  • Working with Facebook to target specific populations and demographics with advertisements in order to provide them with important health information.

Despite these efforts, Technology Review states that the flood of information that disseminates across these platforms has proven to be too overwhelming to appropriately monitor.

The complexities of coronavirus, in and of itself, reportedly may pose significant issues from a wide range of angles. But the seemingly endless supply of information that pervades the Internet—both true and false—appears to only add to the list of concerns.