Fact or fiction: Navigating the infodemic

August 4, 2020 by Anna Volbrecht

COVID-19 has been plagued by rumors, half-truths, and hoaxes. Where do we go for trustworthy information?


Illustration: PATH/Thom Heileson.

In unpredictable times, we use information to regain our sense of certainty. Information can validate our decisions, aid our understanding, and offer reassurance—but only if that information is reliable and true.

False and misleading information is spreading uncontrolled like the coronavirus itself.

When the accuracy of information changes over time or when it can’t be verified, misinformation and disinformation fill the uncertain void. That vacuum has created an “infodemic,” according to the World Health Organization—false and misleading information spreading uncontrolled like the coronavirus itself.

So, who can we trust? Here are a few resources PATH looks to for reliable information and perspectives:

Public health organizations

Normative, nonprofit, and academic organizations are often the primary sources for information about public health. They produce peer-reviewed evidence through research, provide health-related guidance to both governments and individuals, and share their experiences working with communities to improve health services.

However, these resources can sometimes be highly technical, making them hard to understand and apply to our everyday lives. Another challenge: many public health organizations are implicated in past injustices and misinformation campaigns—though many have adopted policies and accountability mechanisms to avoid repeating history.

Some public health organizations that PATH relies on for information on COVID-19 include the World Health Organization, the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, and the Johns Hopkins University.

Also, consider following the United Nations’ “Verified” campaign. This effort works to combat misinformation by aggregating and sharing trusted content, branded with double check marks.

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Academics and public health experts

Within public health organizations, there are many scientific and inspirational minds behind the evidence and research. These individuals use sector publications and academic journals—like The Lancet, BMJ Global Health, and Vaccine—to provide insights from their work. These take the form of peer-reviewed research, opinion pieces, and commentary. Many of these individuals also share their perspectives on social media channels, op-eds, and elsewhere online.

Those of us working in public health often have a list of inspirational academics and thought leaders that we follow. Here are just a few that are popular among colleagues at PATH:

Dr. Soumya Swaminathan
Chief scientist at the World Health Organization.

Dr. Ifeanyi Nsofor
Director of policy and advocacy at Nigeria Health Watch and serves as the chief executive officer of EpiAFRIC.

Alaa Murabit
Founder of The Voice of Libyan Women and a United Nations Commissioner.

Dr. Seye Abimbola
Editor in chief of BMJ Global Health.

Graça Machel
International activist working for women and children in southern Africa.

Dr. Seth Berkley
Chief executive officer of Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance.

Dr. Uché Blackstock
Chief executive officer of Advancing Health Equity and a Yahoo News medical contributor.

Dr. Arrianna Planey
Medical geographer and health services researcher in the United States.

Dr. Rhea Boyd
Writer from PaperLeaf who teaches about the relationships between racism, inequity, and health (check out this article about racism, COVID-19, and police brutality).

Newspapers, magazines, and journalism websites

Particularly when health becomes a topic of public concern, like the COVID-19 pandemic, news outlets become a popular source for public health stories. PATH follows many national and international news organizations—like Al Jazeera, AllAfrica, and The Times of India—that provide timely updates on COVID-19 and other public health topics. Other outlets like NPR’s Goats and Soda and Devex specialize in global health and development news, and are excellent sources for public health news even beyond times of pandemic.

When using news outlets as a resource, it is important to identify the specific perspective of an outlet. News outlets take a different approach to their reporting and rely on a range of primary sources. Understanding these differences helps us determine what information is potentially misleading.

We also suggest checking out Reporters Without Borders, which specializes in the defense of media freedom. This site broke the news about the Myanmar government’s move to shut down more than 200 sites suspected of spreading COVID-19 myths.

Individual journalists and bloggers

Individual journalists and writers play important roles, holding organizations accountable and acting as translators—unpacking highly technical subjects for a broad audience. Just as with news outlets, however, it is important to also be aware of their specific perspective and the sources they use in their pieces.

Here are just a few articles from individual journalists that talk more about the importance of evidence and information in COVID-19:

How you should read coronavirus studies, or any science paper
(Carl Zimmer, New York Times)

Coronavirus: The misinformation circulating in Africa about COVID-19
(Peter Mwai, BBC News)

Debunking 9 popular myths doing the rounds in Africa about the coronavirus
(Neelaveni Padayachee and Lisa Claire du Toit, The Conversation)

Tsunami of fake news hurts Latin America’s effort to fight coronavirus
(Tom Phillips, David Agren, Dan Collyns, and Uki Goñi, The Guardian)

And here is a crowdsourced list from PATH staff of journalists covering the pandemic and other important health issues:

Ed Yong
Award-winning science writer for The Atlantic. Read his article about why coronavirus is so confusing.

Erin Bromage
Immunologist at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth and is best known for this article about weighing and avoiding the social risks of COVID-19 transmission.

Helen Branswell
Senior writer at STAT, whose contributions include this interview with the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Julia Craven
Staff writer for Slate, who authored this powerful piece about the impact of COVID-19 on Black lives.

The Story Collider
An online platform at the intersection of science and storytelling. Executive director Liz Neeley penned this piece about how to talk about coronavirus.

Madhukar Pai
Forbes contributor and tuberculosis expert who often writes about the impact of COVID-19 on other epidemic diseases.

The SpeakPatrice newsletter
American freelance journalist Patrice Peck writes and curates this roundup of “Coronavirus News for Black Folks” (subscription required).

Vidya Krishnan
Influential investigative health journalist who digs into the Indian government’s response—and its shortcomings. She also publishes in The Caravan and The Atlantic.

Trevor Bedford
Seattle scientist who has been at the forefront of COVID-19 science since January.

What we’re doing

These lists are far from complete but represent some of our top sources for trustworthy pandemic information. Like the rest of our sector, we’re continually learning from scientific research, from public health experts, and from trusted media sources that verify information.

We invite you to join us for a series of no-cost live forums where you can gain real public health insights from PATH experts and partners.

What else should we be reading?
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These recommendations do not constitute endorsement of opinion or fact by PATH.