HIFA Blog: Month in Review, May 2020 - More on Coronavirus and the cancer of misinformation

17 June, 2020

Quote of the month: “I honestly don’t think that we are past the peak of fake information. As long as the population is not well informed they will continue to believe fake information.” Kenny Garmendia, HIFA member, Medical doctor at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Honduras

The previous HIFA Blog focused on the increasing use of social media platforms to share misinformation and fake news about COVID-19. It reported the experiences of HIFA members, revealing how easily and quickly false information can “go viral”, within and across groups. HIFA members identified ‘viral misinformation’ as a contributory factor, both in undermining efforts to contain the pandemic and spreading panic amongst citizens.

“I am doing field work in this COVID-19 pandemic and it has been really hard”. Kenny Garmendia is a medical doctor and author of our Quote of the Month. He cited the low level of education among Hondurans, causing them to believe all the fake news that they receive through WhatsApp and other forms of social media. He gave some examples of the misinformation he and his colleagues are up against:

1. “The medical doctors doing field work and home visits are carrying a syringe that will infect the patients with coronavirus and that the general population should not, by any chance, let us inside their home”.

2. “You can prevent coronavirus disease by drinking small amounts of chlorine and alcohol on a daily basis”.

3. “Coronavirus disease is a lie and the government is using it in order to keep us under control”.

Presidents and policymakers are also contributing to misinformation and ‘fake news’ among their citizens. In May, US President Donald Trump announced he was taking hydroxychloroquine to ward off coronavirus, despite public health officials warning it may be unsafe. This drew a stark warning from Joseph Ana (HIFA member, Nigeria): “Information specialists like the media, those experts in science and indeed policy makers and politicians, all of society must work and speak out to stop people from following Mr. Trump's example and coming to harm."

Meanwhile, in Tanzania, President John Magufuli was advocating the use of an unproven cure: a herbal treatment recommended by the President of Madagascar, but tested on only twenty people. Two days later, Paul Makondo, the Regional Commissioner of Tanzania’s largest city, Dar es Salaam announced that coronavirus had ‘ended’ and encouraged Tanzanians to hold street parties.

The myths circulating in Honduras and the reckless words and actions of world leaders reinforce how vital it is for citizens to be well-informed, so that they can challenge such dangerous falsehoods and, in doing so, protect their own health and the health of those for whom they are responsible.

“40% of the world’s population is not online. Even in an affluent country like the UK 20% of the population are either not online or lack basic digital skills.” These were the stark facts laid out by HIFA Coordinator Neil Pakenham-Walsh, during a thematic discussion about digital health inequality, hosted on the HIFA forum during April. It found that, “…those who most need support (including older and socially disadvantaged people) are least likely to be online.” The discussion also questioned the assumption that people who are connected to the internet are, by default, better informed. “They are more likely to be exposed to health misinformation, more likely to hold false beliefs, and more likely to be conspiracy theorists.”

The thematic discussion helped to inform a webinar, supported by HIFA and the International Federation of Library Associations: “Combating digital health inequality in the time of coronavirus”, and led by Bob Gann, an independent consultant specialising in digital inclusion. Bob is also a member of the HIFA Working Group on Library and Information Services. The webinar is freely accessible here and a text summary of the thematic discussion is here.

Metrics: In May 2020 HIFA (English) exchanged 237 messages from 97 contributors in 27 countries (Austria, Canada, Congo-Brazzaville, Croatia, Germany, Honduras, India, Iraq, Jordan, Kenya, Lebanon, Nepal, Netherlands, Nigeria, Norway, Philippines, South Africa, South Sudan, Spain, Sudan, Switzerland, Tanzania, UAE, Uganda, UK, USA, Zambia). Our top contributors were Joseph Ana, Nigeria (20) and Julie N Reza, UK (16). Thank you all for sharing your views and your experience.

Martin Carroll was previously Head of the International Department at the British Medical Association, London UK, and has worked on issues affecting health in LMICs since 2003. He represented the BMA on the HIFA Steering Group from 2008-16 and is now an independent HIFA Steering Group member.   Martin is a member of three HIFA working groups: Multilingualism, Evaluating the Impact of Healthcare Information, and Social Media. He is also the HIFA blogger. Twitter: @MMCarroll 

Picture credit: CDC/Alissa Eckert, MS; Dan Higgins, MAM. Thanks to Wikipedia