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Much about the current coronavirus pandemic is still extremely uncertain. How many more will be infected? What are the effective treatments? When will it end? However, one of its most pernicious vectors – misinformation – has rapidly come to light. Just as the virus has infected millions of people, so too have a litany of conspiracy theories, myths, and tropes infected our media and information ecosystems. Consequently, this misinformation is shaping people’s behavior offline and impacting health outcomes. An April 2020 study on the influence of coronavirus media coverage analyzed two popular Fox News cable programs, one of which downplayed the threat of the coronavirus. The study found that counties with greater viewership of that program reported greater numbers of COVID-19 cases and deaths, demonstrating the harmful impact of misinformation.
While the current pandemic has brought the threat of misinformation into sharp focus, its spread and impact should come as no surprise; this phenomena did not begin with coronavirus nor will it end with it. Rather, misinformation is part of a long history of psychological, social, economic, technological, and political dynamics, and is the latest expression of enduring myths and conspiracies that are reframed to fit current contexts.
Yet what is new is our contemporary information and media ecosystems, which have fundamentally changed the way information is produced, communicated, and distributed. By building on technologies and digital networks that are transforming and expanding at unparalleled speed, while simultaneously exploiting current socio-political conditions, misinformation has been allowed to fester. And while our offline and online lives become evermore intertwined, misinformation has the power to influence our decisions and behavior.
Both the acute coronavirus misinformation crisis and enduring trends like the anti-vaccination movement make clear that expert opinion and fact has little influence on our individual attitudes, beliefs, and behavior. Public health needs to rapidly adjust to the realities of our information and media ecosystems, misinformation, and their significance to health around the world.
As an interdisciplinary center with a global scope, Harvard Global Health Institute (HGHI) has a unique ability to leverage diverse expertise to support rigorous academic research and produce real-world impact. We are dedicated to improving our understanding of the complex web of conduits that breed health misinformation, examining the downstream consequences on our offline lives, and determining what we can do to improve the health information ecosystem. To achieve this, HGHI focuses on four key functions: Collaboration, Research, Translation, and Interventions.
HGHI convenes researchers, policymakers, technologists, and journalists to foster the collaboration needed to strengthen the research landscape and offer meaningful solutions. By breaking down disciplinary silos and integrating voices from all disciplines, backgrounds, and geographies, we aim to build a coalition of experts to uncover unique insights that can meaningfully inform solutions.
Despite a rapid increase in research in recent years, significant gaps remain in our knowledge and understanding, particularly around health misinformation. Just as we would with an outbreak of a virus, HGHI examines the sources, conditions and mechanisms for transmission, and effective treatments for health misinformation. We are focused on pioneering new areas of study and seek to understand the complex web of forces working together to cultivate misinformation and its consequences on collective health.
Just like the strategies used to ensure the trust of facts over fiction, insights gleaned from research need to be shared in ways that are actually useful and are relevant to a variety of contexts. HGHI is focused on translating research into action. This is particularly important for those who bear the burden of confronting misinformation first-hand, like healthcare providers with misinformed patients,
As the real life consequences of misinformation become more and more visible, interventions are critically needed to help steer people toward sharing and believing accurate information over conspiracies and myths. More than just a research institute, HGHI solutions aim to amplify accurate and legitimate information, find strategies to increase trust in accurate information, and design approaches to help shift our systems, actions, and institutions to create conditions that disrupt the flow of misinformation.