How do we tackle the scourge of health misinformation in non-communicable disease? Through novel partnerships between nation states, the social and digital media industries and civil society, according to a new WHO toolkit on tackling misinformation in non-communicable disease.
Google’s own figures show there were more than a billion health related searches a day by the end of 2010s. Most of the research on misinformation has focused on vaccination. Vaccine hesitancy was listed by WHO as a top 10 threat to global health in 2019. We saw the devastating impact of misinformation just a year later as the pandemic took hold.
The new WHO toolkit identifies misinformation as an equally serious challenge to tackling non-communicable diseases. Themes related to public health challenges and health inequality are key topics of misinformation. They include diet and nutrition, alcohol, tobacco and drugs. But misinformation also circulates on topics as diverse as cancer treatments and miracle cures for diabetes.
“Like a virus, the spread of health misinformation is hard to contain and requires more than good intentions,” warns the toolkit.
It argues much can be learnt from the COVID-19 global emergency. Nation states delivered targeted, health-literate messages using new channels. Social media companies used new nudging strategies to point to official sources of information and removed and debunked damaging disinformation.
Non-governmental organisations, including my own the Patient Information Forum (PIF), launched new schemes. Our PIF TICK credibility mark helps the public identify health information they can trust and now has more than 120 organisations involved with more than 75 fully certified.
So what have we learned in the last three years? Here are some key points identified by the toolkit.
- The pandemic eroded trust in public health authorities.
- Healthcare professionals remain highly trusted and are key players in promoting health literacy, signposting to trusted sources of information and debunking misinformation.
- Low levels of health literacy make it difficult for people to distinguish between trusted sources of information and misinformation. This applies equally to the young despite higher digital literacy skills.
- Experts are not communicating effectively. Misinformation engages but most public health content is ‘dry’. New ways to communicate evidence based information that connects with audiences must be found.
- Co-creation within communities is key to tackling misinformation. Young people, minority groups, those with low incomes and lower levels of education are most likely to be affected.
- Tools to improve digital literacy and critical appraisal tend to be used least by those that need them most.
- Media literacy initiatives have the ability to ‘inoculate’ audiences against misinformation but are a ‘Herculean solution’ to implement.
- Credibility labeling schemes like PIF TICK, : “If done well, empower audiences with information for them to make their own decisions on what to trust.”
In conclusion, the report argues for a triple alliance between governments, industry and civil society to work together to tackle misinformation.
The UK’s new Media and Information Literacy Alliance (MILA) exists to support partnership working. It is a multi-sector partnership that includes Health Education England, the Chartered Institute of Library Professionals, The Association for Citizenship Teaching, The Schools Library Association, WikiMedia, academic institutions and PIF.
At the core of MILA’s partnership is a recognition that multiple solutions are required to tackle misinformation. It also advocates that academic research is required to demonstrate what works. A view echoed by WHO’s toolkit. It does not pretend to have all the answers, rather it shares emerging practices.
The WHO team cast the net wide to discover novel partnerships. The PIF TICK was featured as an example of credibility labeling of trusted sources of information. Other featured projects included the Learn2Discern media literacy initiative, the News Guard source credibility scheme and the Avaaz Foundation’s anti-misinformation project.
At PIF we know credibility marks are only part of the solution. And PIF TICK is more than a simple credibility labeling scheme. Its criteria range far wider than clinical evidence alone. They cover health and digital literacy, user involvement, dissemination and assessment of impact. The assessment process supports member organisations to produce more engaging and accessible health information, co-created with users.
But it is only one element of the solution, fundamentally, we need the co-ordinated partnership working WHO advocates to tackle misinformation.
We need healthcare professionals to signpost to trusted information producers. We need algorithms on search engines and social media platforms to move trusted sources of information up the rankings and identify them to users. We need better controls on misinformation and disinformation. We need academic research to show what works.
All this must sit within wider initiatives to improve media and information literacy in schools and wider society. By working with MILA and other partners we must to equip people with the skills and support they need to find health information they can trust.
Sophie Randall is the Director of the Patient Information Forum, the UK membership organisation for health information producers.
This post was also published on the MILA website.