Four questions on the phenomenon
The WHO conference on infodemiology was structured around four main research questions, which were intended to be the basis for the study and control of an infodemic:
How can the digital information environment be assessed and monitored?
How is the digital information environment assessed and monitored? How does erroneous or harmful information originate and spread?
How does information affect individuals and populations?
What interventions can be used to limit the effects of an infodemic?
What about funding?
That is a very important aspect: there is no research without funding. We've brought together a few donors, such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which is very interested in this subject, or the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). I think we're going to get very different funders on board as we go along. There's Machado's famous line: "Traveller there is no path, the path is made by walking." That's where we're at right now. We are creating a new scientific field: we know the goal, we know what we want to do, but we don't have the path yet.
One of the things that emerged from the pre-conference was that a viral rumor is based on an attractive narrative, on values and emotions. And that the fight against misinformation is all the more efficient that it relies on these mechanisms. But isn't this a delicate matter for a scientific agency like the WHO?
Yes and no. We think that fake news has characteristics that allow them to circulate fairly easily, but it also circulates when there are communication gaps. One approach is to try to identify and fill these gaps so that they are not filled with false information. There is the amount of information, the adequacy of the information to the concerns, and the form. That's one of our problems as an agency: thinking that providing the information is enough. But it has to be delivered in a useful way, on time, in the right form. We are working on that.
A dozen people fighting fake news from around the world
Along with whose guidance?
There are audiences we would like to talk to in order to better understand their information needs: employers, employees, unions, youth. We are also working a lot with the major religions to develop common guides. We are trying to understand what makes certain ceremonies dangerous and how to transform them. We've done a lot of work on Ebola and the plague in Madagascar. Our information network on epidemics, EPI-WIN, started with webinars for 50 to 200 people [at the beginning of the year] and now we have well over 1000 people, with their networks, in all regions of the world.
How many people are working on these issues at WHO?
I don't dare tell you! There are very few: I have a very small team. At the very beginning of the crisis, there were two people, then I took on people from my department who are no longer very active because of Covid-19, which means that there are now six or seven people. And we recruited about the same number of outside consultants.
You don’t feel too much like Sisyphus by fighting against fake news from all over the world, do you?
We're already trying to generate interest. Our role is to lead the way, and thank God we're not alone. At the moment we're trying to build cooperation, for example with UNESCO, which is connected to many journalists and radio networks, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), or the International Labour Organization (ILO), which reaches millions of employers.
It's the same with universities: we encourage them to conduct research and share their findings with us. A lot of our time is spent making these connections and connecting the right people rather than doing the work ourselves, which we have absolutely no capacity to do.
Other key players, such as Google, Facebook, Twitter... How is it working with them?
There have been a lot of agreements with these tech giants, which for the moment are pro bono: they're partnering with us for a good cause, let's say. It's important for us to start this way because we don't really know how to work with them yet. For example, we've developed tools to monitor rumors and understand how they are born, grow, and disappear. Some have a lifespan of several weeks, while others disappear within a few hours. We're trying to better understand why and access to databases of web actors is very valuable for that.
"I think the vaccine is going to be a very difficult subject."
With hydroxychloroquine, a medical and health issue has become a political and ideological fault line. Isn't this kind of process a nightmare for the WHO?
It often happens in epidemics, which are health crises but also social crises. Interference with politics is common. It is true that it is a bit disturbing because we are more of a technical agency. We are always a little unsettled when politics interfere, especially at the international level. There are fault lines within countries but also, above all, between countries. That is also why creating a science like infodemiology is useful, to integrate people who are doing political science and questioning the governance of crises. We need to make progress in this area and manage these issues proactively, rather than constantly being reactive.
The Covid-19 vaccines are moving forward at a rapid pace, and so is the resistance to them. Do you anticipate a massive wave of anti-vaccine rumors and messages in the coming months?
I do think the vaccine is going to be a very difficult topic for many reasons. We already have pre-existing fracture lines, we're not going into new territory. For example, we have very strong anti-vaccine movements in some countries, based on the supposed side effects, or in others where vaccines are seen as instruments of colonization that are reputed to cause sterility in women. The risk is that some populations refuse vaccines en bloc when they could save many lives, because of biased, erroneous, or incomplete information.
Afterward, people remain in control of their lives and their health, the goal is not to force them, but it is important to ensure that they have access to information and can form a judgment in favor of their health, not just a cookie-cutter judgment based on emotions or group perceptions.