Interview: Misinformation & Uncontainable Viruses

David P. Fidler tells Samira Sadeque that it’s astonishing how  communication problems continue to flummox national and international health officials during outbreaks.

Civil protection volunteers administer health checks at Milano Malpensa Airport. (Dipartimento Protezione Civile via IPS)

By Samira Sadeque
at the United Nations


Just a month since the World Health Organization declared the Coronavirus a public health emergency, it is now taking steps to contain misinformation being spread about the disease. Globally, there have been more than 82,000 cases of Coronavirus, which has claimed 2,800 lives — the majority being in China, where the disease has been traced to. 

On Thursday, United Nations Secretary General António Guterres reiterated at a talk in New York that it’s not yet a pandemic but urged people to practice caution. 

“We are not yet in a pandemic, but there is a clear risk there and the window of opportunity to avoid it is narrowing,” he said, adding that governments must do everything possible to stop the transmission and to do it now. He also expressed his concern about countries in the developing world that “lack the capacity” to address the massive scale of the issue. 

“This is still the moment to ask for countries to contain the disease and to do everything possible to contain the disease because we’re not yet in an irreversible pandemic,” he said. 

He urged people to avoid stigmatizing the illness, and to “have a human rights approach to the way this disease is fought.”

However, as health officials around the world continue to gear up for the disease, which seemingly has no cure, there is another aspect of the crisis to be dealt with: misinformation about it spreading on the internet. 

David P. Fidler, a senior fellow for cybersecurity and global health at the non-profit think tank, Council on Foreign Relationsdetailed the issue of misinformation and the harm it does during a health emergency like this. 

“Disinformation threatens health because it undermines confidence in the underlying science, questions the motivations of health professionals, politicises health activities, and creates problems for responses to disease challenges,” he wrote in 2019 about how disinformation during an Ebola outbreak was a major concern. 

He went on to explain that it has historic roots: often, illnesses are mistakenly associated or linked to immigrants or a foreign country in order to perpetuate xenophobic sentiments.

“Spreading misinformation about diseases was a tactic of disinformation campaigns by governments before the social media era,” he wrote. 

IPS caught up with Fidler on how misinformation in the current situation can exacerbate the crisis:

Inter Press Service (IPS): Usually during a crisis like this (or in the past during Ebola or SARS), what is the main challenge in containing misinformation being spread?

David Fidler (DF): In past outbreaks, two factors typically converged to produce problems from information and misinformation: uncertainty about the outbreak on the part of national and international health officials making efforts to address the disease, and lack of trust in the population in the information provided by official sources. These factors appeared in disease outbreaks before the advent of social media, and the scale and intensity of information and misinformation circulating on social media platforms exacerbates the two factors noted above.

In addition, the ease with which misinformation can be spread and amplified on social media has become yet another factor public health officials have to address in dealing with outbreaks. Social media even makes communicating accurate information more difficult. I have seen, across my Twitter feed, a cacophony of attempts to share information that has frustrated experts trying to identify and share the latest information about COVID-19.

IPS: What leads to misinformation during times like this?

DF: In the past, people with political agendas would exploit the fear that serious outbreaks create to produce and spread misinformation. Such misinformation in essence weaponized the outbreak for other political purposes. In the age of social media, this “weaponization” of outbreaks for political purposes has become, for lack of a better term, industrialized by state and non-state actors exploiting the potential of social media to spread misinformation on a scale and at a speed never seen before, especially in the public health context.

IPS: What, in your opinion, is currently the biggest misunderstanding about the Coronavirus?
DF: We are seeing, I think, a “triple burden” in the information space concerning COVID-19. First, international and national health officials are struggling to communicate information concerning a new virus about which much is not known.

However, at the international level, WHO has made the information climate worse by praising China’s response even though much of what China has done in trying to address the outbreak in its territory is not consistent with WHO’s recommendations on the outbreak or WHO’s emphasis in the past on responses to outbreaks that do not unnecessarily restrict trade, travel, and human rights. WHO’s credibility, I think, has taken a massive hit. At the national level, we see, for example, the current circus in the U.S. government about communicating to the American people about the outbreak, and I imagine other national governments are also scrambling to get the “messaging” right.

What’s astonishing to me, having studied outbreaks for nearly three decades, is that this communication problem continues to flummox national and international health officials just about every single time – so that “lesson learned” is apparently never actually learned.

Second, we are seeing the weaponization of the outbreak in the misinformation being circulated for different political purposes. For me, this outbreak is different in that the weaponization has connected to the change in geopolitics, with the rise of China and worries about China’s growing power and influence sharpening and broadening criticism of China’s response to the outbreak. Here, unlike Ebola in Africa, we have the outbreak entangled with the increasing rawness of balance of power politics between the United States and China.

Third, we have the social media effect where state and non-state actors are spreading misinformation widely and rapidly in a context where no government or international organisation has any effective policy responses to address this problem.

IPS: What is your recommendation to policymakers to help prevent the spread of misinformation?

DF: The touchstones of effective communication during outbreaks have been studied and promulgated frequently, so follow the playbook, including making the most up-to-date information available with great frequency across media outlets in ways accessible to people, and include in the information advice on any steps individuals can take to protect themselves and their families. Rinse and repeat, again and again as the outbreak evolves. The information/misinformation environment is more competitive now because of social media, but the basic principles of effective communication in a crisis context remain valid even amidst more noise.

IPS: What is your recommendation to institutions such as schools and workplaces?

DF: School and company leaders should monitor information being released by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and translate that information into actionable steps and plans for the school context and for specific workplace contexts. Again, be fast, frequent, and user-friendly with the information that school and company leaders provide to students and employees.

IPS: What is your recommendation to individuals?

DF: Do not rely solely on social media for information about the COVID-19 outbreak and how it might affect you and your family. Visit and re-visit the information provided by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and translate that information into your individual and family circumstances. 

In order to tackle the misinformation concerns, WHO launched its EPI-WIN initiative, which aims to provide users with timely and accurate information while also filtering through “infodemics,” which the organization describes as “excessive amount of information about a problem that makes it difficult to identify a solution.”

Samira Sadeque is a correspondent for Inter Press Service.

This article is from Inter Press Service.

The views expressed are solely those of the author and may or may not reflect those of Consortium News.

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17 comments for “Interview: Misinformation & Uncontainable Viruses

  1. ML
    March 6, 2020 at 15:23

    Then there is the issue of the two strains, the much more severe “L” strain which occurred in Wuhan at the outset and caused huge devastation and the milder “S” strain that seems to cause less severe disease. We don’t know how much of each strain is circulating here in the U.S. We don’t even know the actual case numbers because for one, the dolts rolled out an inferior test at first, then an inadequate number of newer, “better” tests, not to mention all the mildly ill cases spreading it. Here in Oregon, we just received a batch of new tests, but we sure aren’t testing widely. Not at all. And who knows what the real mortality rate is… it could be around 2% or it could be higher. It’s much worse than just the seasonal flu. This will amount to a lot of dead people the world over each season when this thing becomes endemic, which it very likely will. I have a thirty-something nurse friend who laughed at me when I voiced concern a month and a half ago. “It’s just like the gd FLU!”her ignorant self said. Easy for you to say at age 35… I don’t know about the rest of you folks, but I’d like our over 55 population to be able to enjoy another 25 or 30 years of life, as long as they are feeling well and wanting the same for themselves. And our administration is a worldwide joke, not that any other President’s administration would do any better since our whole healthcare system is so stinking rotten and irretrievably broken. Cheers to all of you and best of luck, CN readers. Wash those hands a lot and take your vitamin D3 every single day. I personally like recommending 4000-5000 iu/day. Please don’t touch your face while out in public. Train yourself not to if you haven’t already done so. And good sleep is CRITICAL. Try to adhere to a regular sleep schedule and get your 7-9 hours a night. Guard it jealously. Healthy immunity is the key since “your government is just not that into you!”

  2. Fitzroy Herbert
    March 5, 2020 at 07:02

    For a number of reasons, not least the economic and practical, it appears that China is using treatment methods other than those advocated by Western medical establishment. And not just those founded in what these days is termed ‘traditional Chinese medicine’. The results have been very encouraging. The net result is likely to be RCT data which will significantly challenge some of the more fundamentalist views on treatment efficacy. It remains to be seen if the current emphasis on ‘evidence-based medicine’ will be quite so scientifically ‘objective’ as it purports to be.

  3. Eugenie Basile
    March 5, 2020 at 02:40

    Why are we to believe governments who close down all schools and universities in Italy and simultaneously say this is nothing more than a big flu and … children are resistant to this virus ?

  4. Daniel J Anderson
    March 4, 2020 at 19:12

    This article says the virus was “traced” to China. That it was in China from the beginning was the message from the beginning.

    • Skip Scott
      March 5, 2020 at 09:38

      See an article in Global Research today by Larry Romanoff.

  5. aquadraht
    March 4, 2020 at 16:24

    While I support efforts of spreading factual information about the disease and its consequences, I feel this interview falling short. The interviewed is introduced as “a senior fellow for cybersecurity and global health” at the infamous neocon stinktank CFR. What else qualification than “fellowship” in a mafia of warmongers does he have? Is he a doctor, a programmer, or just a PR mouthpiece?

    The interview, other than a few invectives against China, remains vague. “Social Networks” and “disinformation” are slammed, US bureacracy is praised.

    Granted, there are a few valid points made. In times of fear for epidemics, xenophobia is rising, and so is search for scapegoats. And of course, panic does not help. But that is trivial.

    Maybe the CFR might advise the US government to stop their wars, cut military spending, and “invest” into disease control. Ok, kidding.


  6. Skip Scott
    March 4, 2020 at 15:03

    Since the US government regularly engages in massive propaganda campaigns, someone please explain to me why I should trust the CDC? See Francis Boyle’s interview regarding COVID-19 and these level 3 and 4 laboratories.

    • Curious
      March 5, 2020 at 00:23

      Exactly correct Skip. The BSL-4 labs are a disaster , and not only because they sent live anthrax spores-supposed inactive- to many labs around the world, by Fedex no less. Oops doesn’t even come close. Also, because of they are now hidden in DHS, we have not, as citizens heard about the storm off of NY known as Plume Island and it’s mess, nor have we heard about the BSL-4 lab of of the coast of Houston during the storm/hurricane. I wonder why? With Houston already having EPA Super Fund cleanups at multiple site around Houston, where is the news of the BSL-4 lab and the superfunds? It seems the MSM is dark, and/or clueless here.
      the new test for the Corona virus from the CDC were compromised and didn’t work. What a record of accomplishment!

    • ML
      March 6, 2020 at 13:43

      Yes, that’s correct, Skip Scott. I read the whole Francis Boyle article on my doctor friend’s blog site, Johnday. He is a public health physician and lives in Austin and helped train me as a nurse practitioner many years ago. I find his blog useful. I recommend people read all Dr. Day’s linked articles on Covid-19 and judge for themselves. I am still percolating all the information and I also read various medical journals and scholarly articles, even ones “retracted” after the genome was revealed. It’s an upside down world in which we live, that much is certain.

  7. JohnDoe
    March 4, 2020 at 13:15

    First let’s make it clear that the 82000 cases are only those diagnosed by a laboratory test. Why I say so? Because the virus is much less deadly than it appears counting only the officially recognised cases. What is the real risk? One death per one thousand people who catch the virus? Nobody knows the real number, but that estimate is closer to the reality than the counted numbers.

    Second. Spring is approaching in the northern hemisphere and the higher temperature will create dryer microclimates that will make the spread of the virus more difficult. Maybe Southern China is always hot and humid, I don’t know very well the area, but in Iran, Italy and the other affected countries influenza usually spreads only in Autumn/Winter then it recedes.

  8. March 4, 2020 at 10:21

    Tom, CDC, a mostly apolitical government organization, has a history of effective work on communicable diseases. They receive the usual political pressures of government agencies and have bowed to political expediency in the past. Case in point, the AIDS virus where they essentially abandoned their tracing of contacts and then informing them.

    Yes, the health system is overly expensive and very politicized, but I would separate CDC from that. They work very effectively with state and local health departments.

    When the speak about coronavirus, I hope everyone pays attention. You can assume the state and local health departments are on board and much of what they have to say likely comes from CDC or the National Institutes of Health, also a government agency.

    I share your sentiments with our health “system”, too expensive and does not provide equal access to care.

  9. March 4, 2020 at 08:34

    The doctor tells to avoid politicizing the spread of covid-19 then proceeds to do exactly that.

    “However, at the international level, WHO has made the information climate worse by praising China’s response even though much of what China has done in trying to address the outbreak in its territory is not consistent with WHO’s recommendations on the outbreak or WHO’s emphasis in the past on responses to outbreaks that do not unnecessarily restrict trade, travel, and human rights. WHO’s credibility, I think, has taken a massive hit.”

    To say response should not necessarily restrict trade, travel and human rights suggests China overreacted, which may be true, but in the moment that would seem to be a very difficult approach to take. It would appear what China did was in good faith since it took a huge economic hit by doing so.

    Still, the politics behind what was done is obscure to those like this reader and we may have a red herring being dragged across our path. That does happen.

  10. Fitzroy Herbert
    March 4, 2020 at 05:08

    Not only misinformation.. But the active suppression of useful information too, with the WHO complicit. (WHO, Facebook, Google and other met to organise this action).
    Many people’s immune systems are compromised or serious depleted. This makes them vulnerable to viruses and resulting opportunistic infections (one is the actual cause of most fatalities in the recent outbreak – SARS). In China they have begun to use large doses of Vitamin C – both intravenous and oral. The oral application uses liposomal Vit C (that is Vit C coated with a very thin layer of fat which increases absorption rate to over 90%). They are publicly advising its use as a preventative whilst also using it with serious cases where nothing else seems possible or effective. There are a number of RCT’s being conducted too, to gather data on the effectiveness of these measures.
    All this has been ACTIVELY suppressed in the West (by those agents listed above).
    No doubt the powers that be will justify their actions by stating that they must stop people being given false hope and inaccurate misleading potentially dangerous information. Of course, the medical establishment has been rigorous in its attack and suppression of the benefits for decades. This is just another albeit high profile action. Clearly it has nothing to do with the potential use of a cheap non-patentable method for boosting immune system at a time when this couldn’t be more important and useful.
    Oh they say, large Vit C doses are ineffective. The body doesn’t absorb it and just flushes it out. NOT IF IT NEEDS IT! This is what they fail to say – amongst other things. The effect of large doses of Vit C during infection is extremely helpful. There is little doubt that China has found this to be the case and the RCT data are highly likely to seriously compromise the fundamentalist medical stance towards this cheap readily available therapy in the West. Any mere hint of the use of high dose vitamins – Vit C especially – is dumped on with a ton of bricks, quickly and viciously. Medical professionals are drummed out of practice…
    It is unconscionable that such an approach is deliberately undermined when the world is faced with such a damaging pandemic.
    No I am not a trained medical professional. No, I am not a producer of liposomal Vit C. Though I do make it. It is very cheap and easy to do. No, I have no commercial or political agenda. Except the advancement of human consciousness.

  11. Curious
    March 4, 2020 at 02:03

    Mr Fidler,
    It’s strange you refer to the CDC when they are now swallowed up in politics after their absorption into the gov after 9/11. But nevertheless, please be aware the first test units out of the CDC for this virus were contaminated, which makes some wonder why. It doesn’t reflect a lot of expertise.
    I think the clearest message when I cut through the noise on SM, is to stop and help people define how the disease is transmitted. We see Bumbling Boris in the UK talking about washing hands and singing a tune. To eliminate this bumbling confusion it’s best to learn how the transfer is like a flu although the particles are different and may be absorbed at a rate we are not familiar with yet. So, instead of placing the burden on hand washing, place the burden on those who sneeze and cough spreading unseen viruses in the air that may linger longer than we know. We had to learn measles can be airborne for two hrs and rest active on a service for up to six hours. That was not known to most people.
    So the Drs with knowledge of viral transmission should be at the forefront to explain how this virus is transmitted. The CDC is too bureaucratic to have any immediacy in their response and these days they are often wrong. We could have a prayer group with the VP of the US for those who believe it may help, but in lieu of that, I suggest getting the viral experts out in front of the people to tell them that and sneeze, or a cough may be all you need to wonder about transmission.
    For those bashing the Chinese, please note that they sequenced the virus and put it out to the world quickly. Their response time was unbelievable, as they were able to build two hospitals holding 1,600, and 1,400 hundred people in 8-10 days. Can the US do this? Of course not, because cost exceeds need. When the Chinese quarantined their major areas they gave the world time to figure out their own conditions. they should be praised, not bashed.

  12. Tom Kath
    March 3, 2020 at 23:19

    Why would anyone want to rely on information from a US Centre for Disease control when we know that America has the worst health system in the world? Over 50% of the population cannot even afford to go and get diagnosed for coronavirus, let alone treated if they have it!
    This seems some of the lousiest disinformation I’ve read to date.

    • worldblee
      March 4, 2020 at 11:29

      Agree with your assessment.

    • michael
      March 4, 2020 at 17:52

      Just because the CDC could not make a proper test and their incompetence resulted in a loss of tracking of the spread of the epidemic is no reason to point fingers (“look ahead, not behind”.) There are cultural differences in health care. In the US it is a profit making system, medical outcomes are secondary. Americans will not submit to life style restrictions or quarantines. Most cannot afford the >$3000 to be tested. Most must continue to work when “mildly sick”, spreading the virus unless the symptoms approach flu levels. The Richeast Country in the History of the World didn’t get Rich by wasting money on its people.
      Compare to Singapore, where every person is tracked and exposed people are quarantined, at government expense. In Singapore they’ve had over 110 cases and no deaths. The US has just passed 100 cases with 6 deaths. Is it worth all that money to protect six people in six weeks? Unless it’s an important Elite or politician, how can Singapore justify the expense? Likely there will be breakdowns in quarantine (since many of the cases are mild but infectious), and we can expect spikes in cases in Singapore. In the US, it’s not even clear if we can identify all deaths due to the coronavirus, and we definitely have no capacity to track and quarantine exposed people, and thus slow the spread of the disease. A bad flu season kills >600,000 globally; the next few years these “flu” deaths will likely include Wuhan coronavirus deaths.

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