Japan Communication to Public

“Infodemic” surrounding the novel pandemic – what happened to medical information

As COVID-19 spread, information without certainty in accuracy also became rampant on television, newspaper, and internet. This phenomenon was called an “infodemic”. It had become so wide-spread that in some cases, the fear of being misled by such uncertain information was more worrisome than the pandemic itself. Of course, there have been many cases in history when incorrect medical information had spread which led to damages to peoples’ health. There are also many patients whose health is negatively impacted by information that have skeptical medical basis, such as “if you do X, your cancer will be cured” or “if you eat Y, your allergy can be cured”. There were few key issues that led to this infodemic surrounding COVIC-19.

How to think about scientific information

One of the things I noticed was that many people are not used to the fact that evaluation on scientific information is something that can rapidly change over time. For example, initially, it was thought that “masks may not be very effective in preventing the spread”. Today, universal mask wearing is recommended to prevent secondary transmissions. This is because there is now data available that show that unlike traditional respiratory infections such as the flu, COVID-19 has more transmissions from asymptomatic patients. In science, it is common sense that “evaluation of information shall change when new data is available”. Especially in this pandemic, humankind faced a new virus. It would be natural for such changes to occur in short periods of time.

However, if you are not familiar with such nature of scientific information, the most trustworthy experts who are putting out the best facts available turns from a trusted source to “someone who can’t make up their mind” and “someone who is inconsistent”. On the other hand, “someone who had always said masks are effective (even without evidence to support this claim)” could become more highly regarded in peoples’ eyes. This is extremely dangerous. It is not the role of science to predict the future as a prophet might do. The role of science should be to maximize the use of the best available information at the time to come up with what is “best for now”.

Information source and bias for ordinary citizens

In this pandemic, one of the things that stood out was the sensational programs carried out by TV talk shows. Among them, there were ones that carried uncertain information to stir fear among people. Many patients would say, “I don’t know what to believe.” There were even infectious disease doctors who were treating patients at the front lines that launched protests against these TV shows.

Due to the nature of TV shows, they are sought to continue to provide contents that are unexpected and to incite emotions such as surprise, fear, and happiness. This is because they cannot continue to operate without sustaining high ratings. Those viewers who understand such nature of television may know to compare information they receive from TV to other sources so that they are not just receiving biased information; however, if TV is the only source of your information, this is difficult to do. They may be manipulated by uncertain information. Hoarding of toilet paper and masks that unfortunately occurred is a good example of how people were driven to fear with such information.

Another challenge in this pandemic was that the physicians who are involved in treating infectious diseases and are able to obtain the most up to date evidence were too busy and were not able to be constantly sharing such information with the public. In these unprecedented times, of course they did not have the time to go on to TV shows and be interviewed by newspapers. This also further facilitated the bias in information.

How should evidence be reported

It is not well known to the public that evidence should be reported by getting peer reviewed first and publishing it through a respected publication. Unfortunately, there are those who think that evidence can be trusted the moment it is made available through TV or newspaper. In this pandemic especially, it was common to see evidence that have not yet been published reported widely on TV or pre-prints that had yet to be peer-reviewed be treated equally as other peer-reviewed papers.

Of course, there are pre-print papers that have high scientific value and that people could benefit from it being spread widely. However, such nuanced difference in evaluation is difficult for someone who is not trained to decipher that nuance. I hope that media can change the tone of their reporting based on the reliability of science. At the minimum, provide sources for information that has been published.

Another common occurrence was opinions of individuals being reported similarly to evidence obtained through rigorous scientific process. This type of reporting likely created confusion among citizens.

Internet and SNS became a key source of information

On the other hand, there were positive aspects to how information spread in this pandemic. Experts such as those on Ministry of Health, Labour, and Welfare’s Cluster Response Taskforce and Infectious Diseases Experts’ Group created their own accounts on social media and began to spread information. Platforms like Twitter also helped to increase their credibility by adding a “verified” mark. Information coming from these experts became an important source for those who get their information from social media. In addition, there were infectious disease physicians that were able to frequently write about firsthand accounts through large platforms like Yahoo! News. These likely became a neutral information source based on scientific evidence.

When information is complex, it is important to look for “agreement among multiple experts”. As written before, a great example of that would be information directly coming from expert groups, academic societies, and public institutions. It would be important to go forward by treating information which experts agree on as “information that can be trusted for now” and which experts do not agree on as “information that is not yet certain”, and we should “reserve judgment on uncertain information for now”.

About the author

Dr. Takehito Yamamoto is a surgeon at Kyoto University Hospital. He is also known as “Surgeon KEIYU” with a popular twitter account and a blog in which he covers health literacy for the public and patient-doctor communication. 

Dr. Takehito Yamamoto
Blog: https://keiyouwhite.com/
Twitter: https://twitter.com/keiyou30