MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
The coronavirus outbreak has sparked what some public health officials are calling an infodemic (ph) - so many messages about the virus on social media that it is hard to find information from trusted sources. NPR's Malaka Gharib reports on the World Health Organization's new strategy to get the facts to the public.
MALAKA GHARIB, BYLINE: Scroll through social media and you'll find a lot of news about the coronavirus. Some of it's accurate, and some of it's just untrue, like the idea that the virus is a manmade bioweapon - or that rubbing sesame oil on your skin can protect against infection. Melinda Frost with the World Health Organization says this is the biggest infodemic they've ever seen.
MELINDA FROST: So what we decided to do here at the World Health Organization was cut through that noise.
GHARIB: Cutting through the noise is essential during a health crisis, but tackling the spread of misinformation is complicated. Bhaskar Chakravorti is dean of global business at Tufts University. He says research has shown that fake news tends to travel faster than facts on social media.
BHASKAR CHAKRAVORTI: Quite often, those messages are extreme. They're potentially outrageous. They're potentially exciting to consider. And you click on them and you also feel compelled to pass them on.
GHARIB: That's partly because these messages are often coming through your own social networks, from people you trust. This dynamic, he says, could worsen the impact of the coronavirus outbreak and cause fake remedies, for example, to fan out more widely, like the rumor that drinking bleach can ward off infection.
CHAKRAVORTI: Now, drinking bleach is not good for anything. In fact, it could cause new problems and certainly does not take care of whatever symptoms you might be experiencing.
GHARIB: And there could be a political agenda behind fake news, as well, with messages designed intentionally to sow seeds of distrust. Margaret Bourdeaux, research director of Harvard Belfer Center's Security and Global Health project, shares an example. A few years ago, she says, Russia launched a disinformation campaign to specifically fuel skepticism about vaccines in the U.S.
MARGARET BOURDEAUX: Weaponized disinformation is to undermine people's faith in their health system and health system leaders so that when there is a crisis, they don't listen to their leadership.
GHARIB: The antidote to all this fake news, says Bourdeaux, is to help the public find credible sources. And that's what the World Health Organization is trying to do. In early January, it launched a pilot program called EPI-WIN, short for WHO Information Network for Epidemics. EPI-WIN has several strategies for getting facts to the public. For one, it's teamed up with tech companies like Google, Facebook and Twitter to make sure that trusted sources, like the WHO and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, show up at the top of search results. And the WHO's Melinda Frost says they're trying out a new idea.
FROST: There have been studies that have shown that people actually trust their employers more than they trust many other sources of information.
GHARIB: So Frost and her team have been organizing conference calls with big employers, such as Fortune 500 companies in industries like health, business, travel and tourism.
FROST: So our thought was that if we got really important preventative and health protection information to employers to give to employees, that would be a really quick and trusted way to get that information out to individuals.
GHARIB: Those individuals could then spread that information to family, friends and community. So far, EPI-WIN has spoken to nearly 300 companies and plans to replicate this model in other languages in other parts of the world.
Malaka Gharib, NPR News, Washington.
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