Chapter 3: Taking a glimpse into the health environment

Communication Part 1:

Infodemics and misinformation

By Christopher Burke

The importance of communication can never be overestimated.

The capacity for effective two-way communication is

critical to driving the discourse of any mission and shaping

its public perception. The dissemination of accurate and

timely information will minimise information vacuums

that can be exploited and result in negative coverage. Before

messages are crafted, it is crucial to ascertain the situation

accurately as well as to understand stakeholder and public


Crisis management missions will typically face an overload

of information – a phenomenon referred to as ‘infodemics’.

Sources of information comprise everything from

traditional media (print, TV and radio) to rapidly emerging

digital media (social media and emails) and word of mouth.

Time and resource constraints rarely permit the opportunity

to watch, read and listen to everything. A systematic

strategy is required to identify and understand pertinent

issues, before meaningful responses can be developed and




The main categories of information are:

• primary data, such as government or

key stakeholder announcements;

• secondary sources, including traditional and

digital media;

• informal sources, such as staff and

casual encounters with members of the public.

The availability of print media and TV are often minimal

in a crisis scenario. FM radio, ubiquitous in most parts of

the world, is an extremely effective tool for public communication.

But it is heavily influenced by local political

conditions and is limited geographically to not more than

30km beyond direct line of sight from a transmitter or

repeater. Short-wave radio is a more reliable medium for

objective information from global news agencies, but it

is rarely detailed, often outdated and will not provide a

nuanced understanding of the situation. A small batteryoperated

SW/FM radio is an invaluable addition to any relief

worker’s go-bag.

Digital media are an increasingly important source of information,

though often not feasible in crisis situations due

to damaged infrastructure. While internet penetration and

access to smart phones are growing rapidly, according to

the World Bank ‘only about 35 percent of the population

in developing countries has access to the Internet (versus


Chapter 3: Taking a glimpse into the health environment

about 80 percent in advanced economies).’ Word of mouth

continues to be very effective. It can be astonishingly fast

and uncannily durable, but it is also vulnerable to distortion

and misinformation.

Misinterpretation and misinformation

Each of these sources must be assessed and contextualised

against prevalent, prominent social, political and economic

factors. The facts and figures received will often be inconsistent

and sometimes conflicting. Most errors and contradictions

can be attributed to shortcomings in the capacity of

information sources, associated with misinterpretations,

typos and delays between the capture and dissemination

of information.

However, sometimes the errors can be more insidious. Deliberate

misinformation can be as simple as withholding key

facts and figures in the development and dissemination of

information. Information can be intentionally manipulated.

Misinformation, while most common in conflict scenarios,

is prevalent in many crises. Unscrupulous actors at any

level of civil society or government can exploit situations for

economic, social or political gain – especially in emergency

situations, where positions and power can change hands

very rapidly. Response missions are often key actors and risk

being co-opted to legitimise false or misleading information

to support the cause of unscrupulous actors. Even percep-


tions of partiality can leave mission staff and beneficiaries

vulnerable to attack or marginalisation.

Failure to accurately assess information can result in an

incorrect analysis of a situation. This will at best undermine

the mission, wasting time and resources, while at worst it

can expose mission staff and beneficiaries to unnecessary

danger. For example, you might unknowingly move through

an area still exposed to risk from landmines, or establish

operations somewhere prone to floods or landslides. Meanwhile,

internal divisions within your own mission may

result in distortions in the management of information

that can adversely affect operations.

Managing your mission’s communication

All information, irrespective of the source, must be scrutinised

objectively for both misinformation and the omission

of key facts. Information must be weighed and contextualised

against relevant trends. Patterns will quickly emerge,

but facts should be cross-referenced against as many different

sources as possible (primary, secondary and informal),

across the social, political and economic spectrum before

being treated as credible.

Once fully cognisant of the relevant issues, including the

positions of different stakeholders, the mission’s messaging

and content can be tailored to the appropriate media (print,

TV, FM radio and digital) targeting specific audiences. Mis-


Chapter 3: Taking a glimpse into the health environment

sion staff should be fully briefed on the content of official

communications. They will play an important role in the

dissemination of information via word of mouth among

beneficiaries and within the community. The impact of all

communications should be carefully monitored and assessed,

to fine tune the development of content and reassess

the efficacy of the different media used for dissemination.

Communication among mission staff requires constant

management and coordination.

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