Global fact-checking organizations and pandemic communicators are fielding massive amounts of complex information requests about COVID-19. Meedan’s Digital Health Lab is announcing the development of an emergency response resource to support pandemic fact-checking efforts.
Through our network of public health researchers, epidemiologists and infectious disease specialists, we are developing a database of information related to COVID-19 that is contextualized, populated and regularly updated by public health experts, including epidemiologists and infectious disease researchers. This resource can be used as source material for journalists and fact-checkers who are working to verify and contextualize pandemic-related information.
Limited access to public health experts can present a bottleneck for fact-checkers and journalists, especially during emergencies, when demand for those experts is high. Over the last six years, first at the Harvard School of Public Health and now at Meedan’s Digital Health Lab, I have been researching how health information inequity and digital health misinformation can impact the spread and burden of disease, as well as the communication gaps that can exacerbate those issues. In December 2019, we published a report on how responsible health fact-checking requires a unique standard of care.
It is increasingly clear, and is demonstrated through the COVID-19 pandemic, that two twin challenges need support:
1) Fact-checking organizations, journalists and other communicators are working tirelessly to answer questions about complex health situations and disease distribution, and to explain medical research and epidemiological findings
2) Public health practitioners and infectious disease researchers struggle to urgently communicate their expertise effectively to a wide, general audience
This resource of aggregated expert-sourced information is designed to complement fact-checking database efforts, like Poynter’s excellent CoronaVirusFacts/DatosCoronavirus Alliance, First Draft’s Reporter Hub resources, and Google’s Fact Check Explorer. Where these databases focus on the first challenge — helping fact-checkers and journalists do their jobs more effectively — the second challenge needs more critical support. Meedan’s Digital Health Lab is supplying important health expert perspectives on key COVID-19 issues. We plan to utilize ClaimReview and MediaReview to make sure the content we generate can be shared readily amongst others.
We are also integrating this database into fact-checking bot workflows that many of our partners are already using to source questions from the public, adding an option for wider audiences to either access existing resources relevant to COVID-19, or to submit their queries to be fact-checked. This added option of reaching local fact-checking organizations directly, and providing localized responses, complements the incredibly valuable initiatives being developed by the World Health Organization, and various health ministries around the world, working together to strengthen access to quality information through the pandemic.
With support from the Google News Initiative, Twitter, Facebook, Omidyar Network, the Swedish International Development Agency and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, we have designed an initiative centered around six pillars of work:
Data: During breaking news, limited access to experts can create bottlenecks. This resource can scale fact-checkers’ abilities to access reliable sources for urgent expertise by providing content that is populated and regularly updated by experts. Through a growing list of publicly sourced questions and expert-sourced answers, this resource can also help intergovernmental health organizations understand the greatest and most urgent communication needs during the pandemic.
Network: Meedan has assembled a distributed global network of epidemiologists and global public health experts to build and maintain the database. To streamline the process of ‘expert-seeking,’ which fact-checkers and communicators regularly go through, we developed a triage system that organizes COVID-19 questions into several groups, based on:
- Potential for impacting public health outcomes
- Timeliness and/or urgency
- Area of health expertise required to respond appropriately
Impact Assessment: As we continue to collaborate on projects that address emerging threats with new technologies and evolving workflows, we are committed to centralizing research in impact assessment, monitoring and evaluation into the earliest parts of project design. In addition to our team of public health and user researchers, we are fortunate to be working with experts in monitoring and evaluation from Birmingham City University, as well as the Behavioural Insights Team, to better understand the behavioral impact of our response efforts, and to drive project workflows, database priorities and content design. We are prioritizing a localized and feminist COVID-19 response effort.
Communications: It is key for this initiative to bridge research and practice, and for insights to be actionable for communicators. We are developing templates for packaged, verified content that can be included in outputs sent from fact-checkers to their audiences. The packages are grounded in behavior science and our efforts to develop health-specific standards of care for communications, and include best practices for addressing health information response challenges, such as competing expert perspectives, consistency, and transparency in the ever-changing information ecosystem of pandemics.
Technology: We are prioritizing pathways for disseminating contents of the database across languages to fact-checkers and pandemic communicators around the world. We are also integrating into Meedan’s open source verification and fact-checking workspace software, Check, in order to make its expert-reviewed contents available to the public. Through Check, we are creating an interface for users to design custom multilingual bots for disseminating their fact-checked content, connecting users to closed messaging networks including Facebook Messenger, Twitter Direct Message, and WhatsApp. End users will then be able to access a subset of relevant resources, selected by each fact-checking organization individually, via a simple query system, and will be presented with short lists of up-to-date content that matches their query.
Research: Through this project, we are examining the nature and scope of COVID-19 questions across languages and geographies, exploring patterns of similar themes of misinformation, and translating findings into useful insights for public health communicators. In addition, as a group that works closely with partners in emerging economies, Meedan is closely following the impact of the pandemic on migrants, women, people living in densely populated urban areas and underserved communities that don’t have access to public health care systems. Our team members in different regions are tracking the impact of lockdowns on democracies, civil rights and violence against women, and insights will inform database priorities.
As we’re learning each day, information and misinformation about the COVID-19 pandemic are spreading in online ecosystems as rapidly as the virus itself is spreading around the world. During this historic time, the public has a wide range of time-sensitive and critical questions about everything from new travel restrictions to evolving infectious disease research. Fact-checking organizations are working tirelessly to answer questions about complex health information, medical research and epidemiological findings, while public health practitioners and infectious disease researchers struggle to urgently communicate their expertise to a wide general audience. The result of this problem set is public confusion, strained resources and often poor health outcomes, as low-quality online health information exacerbates the real-world spread of disease. Through this initiative, it is our hope to alleviate pressure on fact-checking organizations with limited resources and provide a needed audience to health experts.
This project builds off of years of research, including research on addressing health misinformation at MIT’s Center for Civic Media and the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society, inspired by working with Dr. Brittany Seymour, a brilliant researcher and mentor whose early work shaped much of today’s health misinformation discourse, and through the founding of Meedan’s Digital Health Lab in 2018, a public health research unit with a goal of promoting health equity through digital initiatives.
Over the last six years, these ideas have been developed, workshopped, and shared in late-night dinners and graduate school study sessions punctuated by ‘what-ifs’ and impromptu brainstorming, in sessions at SwitchPoint, the International Journalism Festival, the Digital Health @ Harvard series, RightsCon, MisinfoCon, and the Google News Initiative Summits, in fellows hours at the Berkman Klein Center, in ethics, mixed methods, and human rights lectures, and in conversations between friends and colleagues, hopeful in our ability to create something important together. I am immensely grateful to Meedan’s partners for showing us where we can make the most of our work together, and to all of our supporters as we further develop this intersection.
This COVID-19 response effort would not be possible without the partnership and collaboration of Dr. Christin Gilmer, Graphika, the Behavioural Insights Team, Birmingham City University, students and researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health and the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, and our network of public health specialists.
As we continue to build this initiative, we are keen to learn and collaborate. We’re grateful for the opportunity to contribute to the challenging and essential work that fact-checkers and communicators are doing to address this pandemic, and the accompanying misinfodemic. Please reach out at email@example.com to talk more.
- Online conversations are heavily influenced by news coverage, like the 2022 Supreme Court decision on abortion. The relationship is less clear between big breaking news and specific increases in online misinformation.
- The tweets analyzed were a random sample qualitatively coded as “misinformation” or “not misinformation” by two qualitative coders trained in public health and internet studies.
- This method used Twitter’s historical search API
- The peak was a significant outlier compared to days before it using Grubbs' test for outliers for Chemical Abortion (p<0.2 for the decision; p<0.003 for the leak) and Herbal Abortion (p<0.001 for the decision and leak).
- All our searches were case insensitive and could match substrings; so, “revers” matches “reverse”, “reversal”, etc.
Nat Gyenes, MPH, leads Meedan’s Digital Health Lab. She received her masters in public health from the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health, with a focus on equitable access to health information and human rights. She is a lecturer at Harvard University on the topic of health, digital media and human rights.