A Public Health Research Agenda for Managing Infodemics: Methods and Results of the First WHO Infodemiology Conference

JMIR Infodemiology. 2021 Sep 15;1(1):e30979. doi: 10.2196/30979. eCollection 2021 Jan-Dec.


Background: An infodemic is an overflow of information of varying quality that surges across digital and physical environments during an acute public health event. It leads to confusion, risk-taking, and behaviors that can harm health and lead to erosion of trust in health authorities and public health responses. Owing to the global scale and high stakes of the health emergency, responding to the infodemic related to the pandemic is particularly urgent. Building on diverse research disciplines and expanding the discipline of infodemiology, more evidence-based interventions are needed to design infodemic management interventions and tools and implement them by health emergency responders.

Objective: The World Health Organization organized the first global infodemiology conference, entirely online, during June and July 2020, with a follow-up process from August to October 2020, to review current multidisciplinary evidence, interventions, and practices that can be applied to the COVID-19 infodemic response. This resulted in the creation of a public health research agenda for managing infodemics.

Methods: As part of the conference, a structured expert judgment synthesis method was used to formulate a public health research agenda. A total of 110 participants represented diverse scientific disciplines from over 35 countries and global public health implementing partners. The conference used a laddered discussion sprint methodology by rotating participant teams, and a managed follow-up process was used to assemble a research agenda based on the discussion and structured expert feedback. This resulted in a five-workstream frame of the research agenda for infodemic management and 166 suggested research questions. The participants then ranked the questions for feasibility and expected public health impact. The expert consensus was summarized in a public health research agenda that included a list of priority research questions.

Results: The public health research agenda for infodemic management has five workstreams: (1) measuring and continuously monitoring the impact of infodemics during health emergencies; (2) detecting signals and understanding the spread and risk of infodemics; (3) responding and deploying interventions that mitigate and protect against infodemics and their harmful effects; (4) evaluating infodemic interventions and strengthening the resilience of individuals and communities to infodemics; and (5) promoting the development, adaptation, and application of interventions and toolkits for infodemic management. Each workstream identifies research questions and highlights 49 high priority research questions.

Conclusions: Public health authorities need to develop, validate, implement, and adapt tools and interventions for managing infodemics in acute public health events in ways that are appropriate for their countries and contexts. Infodemiology provides a scientific foundation to make this possible. This research agenda proposes a structured framework for targeted investment for the scientific community, policy makers, implementing organizations, and other stakeholders to consider.

Keywords: COVID-19; SARS-CoV-2; access to information; attitudes; beliefs; communications media; community resilience; disinformation; evidence synthesis; infodemic; infodemic management; infodemiology; information literacy; information-seeking behavior; internet; knowledge translation; message amplification; misinformation; research agenda; research policy; risk communication.