“The Pen is Mightier than the Sword - The Emergence of Infodemics that Hurt the World”

by Rob Tyrie

This age of COVID19 is historic. No time in history is more unique. Like the Spanish Flu and the Black Death, it will be remembered for the next 100 years.

It’s not that plagues or pandemics are new. Smallpox, Tuberculosis and Polio still remain in humanity’s collective consciousness. Cholera is still a pandemic. There have been pandemics before that have killed millions of people and significant portions of civilized cities and nations. However, there has never been a global pandemic, with the phenomenon of the modern internet, AI, and instantaneous, deep, wide communication on the planet as disaster after disaster rolls out across the world. It is transfixing. It is clear that this is not just a disease pandemic. It is a triple pandemic of disease, fear and economic depression. Each of these horsemen is viral and exponential. That is a phenomenon too, because each interacts and exacerbates the other in overlapping ways.

The overlapping impacts of these three pandemics is a huge disaster that keeps expanding over time from disease outbreak-to-outbreak. The impact of the triple pandemic is multiplied exponentially by the overload of information, misinformation and disinformation. We need better ways to deal with it.

Here is the cycle that spins news, rumours and information attacks — people get sick and are hospitalized. Families and frontline workers are overworked or afraid to go to work, and the government is afraid citizens will die or become infirm. They move to limit mobility to stop cases spreading and lockdown economies. They institute the ancient practice codified in the 14th century by the Venetians — quarantines. This causes more fear, and in the case of some of the poorest people in society, those with no jobs because of lockdowns or shocks to the supply chain from restrictions, there are the impositions of stress, anxiety or difficult living circumstances. Bad conditions like lack of nutritious food or overly dense housing impact immune systems, which in turn can cause the infectious disease to spread.

At times this impossible vicious cycle feels unending, but we must do something to make sense of it.

Information Explosion

Each day, thousands of articles, reports and posts are made about the COVID 19 disease and pandemic. It is the first pandemic in history where the size, scale and speed of creating and distributing information are massive, full and complete across the globe. Every second of information about the disease and related science, policies and economies are written about, shared and read billions of times a day. This has never happened before. Never has there been instant information out of the hands of gatekeepers and institutions going directly between people who seek to publish anything. As of Dec 27th 2020, when you googled the term COVID19, which was coined about nine months ago and has become the common label for this novel coronavirus, there are over 6B results. And, there are 6.8B results for COVID-19. Even when you google Trump, one of the most recognizable celebrities globally, that term only has 1.5B results. Those results are only in the indexed internet, which does not include academic, corporate, government, military, medical, or darknet sources being used in relation to this pandemic.

That rate of information creation and dissemination is incalculable and unpredictable.

In the scientific world, there is an explosion of data, research and other results about this coronavirus. There are almost 200,000 research reports written so far about COVID19 and SARS-COV-2, and again, this is only the first year of COVID19. If each paper took just an hour to read, it would take over 22 years to read the current body of knowledge which changes every day, so it is not possible to read them all with any effect on near-term situations. How do we make sense of all that?

IBM Deep Research has created the CORD-19 Data Resources and, so far, has ingested almost 160,000 research papers and makes them available to anyone in the world. The Lancet has opened access to over 2,000 research papers for free on the internet. Along with these, there are the datasets, databases and case trackers, outbreak trackers, vaccine trackers and more. Each of these has global and local levels of information that is slowly being integrated into seamless views. In addition, there is the work of every major and minor newspaper, journalistic and academic publication focused on the triple pandemic. Sharing and dissemination are supported by the largest social networks across the globe that include: FaceBook, WeChat, VK, Weibo, Renren and Medium, in every language. Information moves around the world friction-free at the speed of light and typing.

If we all lived in a classic science fiction novel or movie, the common threat of a dangerous infectious disease would cause unprecedented global cooperation in solving a common enemy of all humanity; it’s the stuff of the good Star Trek movies or the Independence Day movie.

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home

Sadly and maddeningly, that is not the case. Countries, governments and companies had the chance to share information, they can validate, corroborate, categorize, organize, summarize and make it available to help people to respond to the health crisis and the economic crisis. But they didn’t, and bad things have occurred.

Abused Information Fans Fear

The second turbo engine in the triple pandemic is fear. The core fear of the impact of the disease and the power shift happening around the world has caused an existential crisis in which information generates anxiety in many ways for several reasons. Paradoxically, both knowing about the disease and not knowing about it at the same time causes turmoil.

For example, initially, there was the absence of information and the purposeful withholding of information. There is a classic “rock and hard place” for governments. Share too little, and people get hurt and die. Share too much information, and a number of negative things could happen — panic, inaccurate information, under-estimation, over-simplification, over-caution, blame and stigma. These all can and did occur. Hong Kong’s South Morning China Post reported early in April that China was not sharing information completely and that Hong Kong Epidemiologists predicted a much larger epidemic in Wuhan. That was not clear until the Chinese Government locked down all of Wuhan, an 11 million person jurisdiction, and when reports that hospitals were being crashed started to leak out. As the world watched, it was a looming possibility that with advanced integration of all world cities with trade and travel, the epidemic would spread worldwide. This is not the first pandemic where this type of information was withheld. It also happened during SARS and MERS. This all causes fear.

The 2020 Documentary 76 Day — Experience in Wuhan, China

As the fear mounted, information about the disease increased exponentially. Not surprisingly, fear, rumour and misinformation grew and spread just like a human infectious disease, and our behaviours spread news naturally as a survival instinct, and, as the old saying goes, bad news travels fast. Social networks supercharge the info-spreading.

The speed of information sharing is mind-boggling. As information mounts up and piles up unendingly, it is uncoordinated, inconsistent, incomplete, rapidly changing and difficult to understand for community officials, the front-line workers, and the public. This tsunami of information has been called an “infodemic”, essentially, an information pandemic, which is a set of information passed from person to person across networks that harms humans across the world much like a disease.

An approach — Infodemic Management

The term was coined in 2003 concerning the SARS crisis in the Washington Post. Journalist and Political Scientist David Rothkopf saw the issue where a relatively small set of outbreaks with limited health impacts could be amplified with fear, false information, speculation and rumours causing reactions not rooted in reality. Still, the consequent reality became billions of dollars of wide-ranging economic damage to places like Singapore, Hong Kong and Toronto. Some of the reactions were rational such as installing handwashing stations in hospitals and the “sleeve-sneeze” public health education push. Other things, like the decimation of travel and tourism to these centers for years, were an irrational overreaction. Governments did not anticipate the possibility of infodemics and did not prepare for them.

Coming into the COVID-19 pandemic, some lessons were learned, but others were not. Some things definitely changed. In 2003, Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram and the fabric of social networks did not exist in its present ubiquitous form.

The rise of the power of social networks, and the actors that use them to weaponize information to divide and polarize, has turned this into a brain-busting challenge that must be considered and solved in some new way. Competing governments, battling corporations and bad actors are using the disease pandemic to destabilize their opponents to gain political and economic power. Confused citizens and frustrated agitators are turning away from institutions or worse undermining trust in organizations needed to react to health and economic problems. It is an information crisis.

It is such a huge problem that major health institutions have stepped up to define the issues and consequences of massive amounts of information and misinformation that grows and spreads like an infectious disease. The CDC and The World Health Organization, among others, have been tracking this information crisis and have moved to formalize the definition of infodemics to help control misinformation and dis-information while overall improving clarity and, as a by product improve trust in governments and health organizations.

“An infodemic is an overabundance of information, both online and offline. It includes deliberate attempts to disseminate wrong information to undermine the public health response and advance alternative agendas of groups or individuals. Mis- and disinformation can be harmful to people’s physical and mental health; increase stigmatization; threaten precious health gains; and lead to poor observance of public health measures, thus reducing their effectiveness and endangering countries’ ability to stop the pandemic.

Misinformation costs lives. Without the appropriate trust and correct information, diagnostic tests go unused, immunization campaigns (or campaigns to promote effective vaccines) will not meet their targets, and the virus will continue to thrive

Furthermore, disinformation is the polarizing public debate on topics related to COVID-19; amplifying hate speech; heightening the risk of conflict, violence and human rights violations; and threatening long-terms prospects for advancing democracy, human rights and social cohesion”

World Health Organization, Sept 23, 2020

Defining infodemics was only part of the strategy. The WHO knew it needed a broad approach and needed to work with national governments, communities, and companies to come up with approaches to try to address infodemics to dull their impact on society. In September, they made a call for all UN member nations to actively manage infodemics with the timely publishing of clear information based on science and evidence to all communities while respecting freedom of expression.

The group has convened a multi-part conference at the end of 2020, developed a global resolution for UN Member countries and set up a new program for something that will be a career of the future — The Infodemic Manager, a role meant to be deployed into public health organizations around the world. The first cohort of 275 people entered their training for the role this November and will redeploy in 2020. The infodemic management curriculum is fascinating as it covers fact-checking, history, technology, case studies, social marketing and modem practices of infodemic management. Increased education and training will result in new policies and new government measures and actions during infodemics.

Infodemics includes disciplines across science, technology, information, economics, political science, government, policies, anthropology, medicine and health, among others. It looks like the challenge of infodemics begs the creation of a new kind of science to address the problems and the systems thinking to create structures and institutions that are needed now. The antidote to fear is knowledge, and knowledge in human history does not materialize from the air.

Governments and leaders of all organizations must learn more about infodemics and plan to meet their challenges in the future.

Calls to action should start with individuals

This is the right time for all governments in the world to build out education and sense-making related to infodemics. Perhaps in a couple of years, we will start seeing academic institutions with training in infodemics and the soon-to-emerge new branch of science the WHO is calling infodemiology. Like the need to develop the science of epidemiology to address epidemics and infectious diseases, there needs to be a discipline to address this kind of problem that will repeat across fear generating events in the world like infectious diseases, airplane crashes, economic failures and terrorist incidents.

In the meantime, here are some infodemic management tools for individuals that are useful right now for people feeling overwhelmed and unsure about COVID-19 information. These are eight great infodemic-proofing steps to help us all deal with the information overload that comes with pandemics:

  1. Develop a set of trusted sources for health safety information.
  2. Think critically if health information is not coming from health institutions.
  3. Before you forward or share an article on email, chat or social media, read it.
  4. Observe the language that comes with advice. Be wary of overly emotional or toxic language.
  5. Build a network of trust in your community that can help you understand the disease and the different safety steps you should be taking.
  6. Learn the stages of how scientific information is developed from hypothesis to experiments, theories, and clinical trials.
  7. Understand that there will not be sure answers when information is limited and it might take patience and time before better information and advice is available.
  8. Learn to understand the risks of one behaviour over another. Probabilities are important.

-namaste -


Rob Tyrie is an analyst living in Toronto Canada, working from home and mobile in his Jeep. He is CEO and Managing Producer of Ironstone Advisory which provides advice and knowledge to software, insurance and banking companies with a focus on starting and scaling new companies and programs with new technologies. He reads a lot and he tweets a lot @robtyrie.

This year, with Andrea Kates, and Sean Moffitt, he co-founded The Grey Swan Guild a virtual global think tank with a mission to make sense of change and the massive impacts of grey swan events in the world, for the betterment of humanity and sustainability of the planet. He thinks and writes there along with creating new technology tools to analyze and share data, information, knowledge and wisdom.

For more sensemaking about how the pandemic is affecting our modes of working through living, loving, learning, leading, and liminal lens, or to contribute your own thoughts and content, go to The Grey Swan Guild, join our Global League of Sensemakers and sign up for our updates, events, workshops and programs.

Research — Sources & notes

Washington Post, David Rothkopf, “When the Buzz Bites Back” 2003 — https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/opinions/2003/05/11/when-the-buzz-bites-back/bc8cd84f-cab6-4648-bf58-0277261af6cd/

The World Health Organization Infodemic Management Conference Information — https://www.who.int/teams/risk-communication/infodemic-management

IBM- Deep Research CORD-19 — https://www.research.ibm.com/covid19/deep-search/

The Lancet COVID19 Papers and Reports — https://www.thelancet.com/coronavirus



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