Interview with Gyöngyi Kovacs, Erkko Professor in Humanitarian Logistics at the Hanken School of Economics (Finland) and coordinator of the EU-funded Health Emergency Response in Interconnected Systems project.
What inspired the Health Emergency Response in Interconnected Systems (HERoS) project?
Gyöngyi Kovacs: HERoS kicked off around April 2020, just a few weeks after the first wave of the pandemic hit Europe. We developed the concept based on information reaching Europe from Wuhan and on data from previous pandemics like the Ebola crisis and the Zika virus. Sadly, many of the problems we had anticipated on the basis of pre-existing information became true later on. That being said, it was really hard to predict the extent of the pandemic in the beginning.
HERoS covers several areas of work, including governance, epidemiology, supply chain control and misinformation. What are the biggest issues that misinformation poses in the management of the current pandemic?
Gyöngyi Kovacs: One of the biggest challenges of misinformation or false claims associated with the pandemic is that it is not restricted to certain groups, but it spreads throughout society. However, we found that the biggest danger actually comes from outdated information. This virus has been extensively and rapidly researched, and therefore the initial assumptions about its spread mechanisms or potential effects have changed. However, there still is a wealth of outdated and conflicting information available, and this is a problem when trying to keep the population informed of important facts on prevention, immunisation, etc.
What are the principles or ideas behind the fact-checking observatory?
Gyöngyi Kovacs: We base our analysis on social media, which represents the main source of false claims, and on proven fact-checkers. Then, we gather the following data: origin information, statistics on the process of reach and spread and how or if fact-checking altered the trend. In the future, we are planning experiments to explore reactions to fact-checking.
The initial focus of the project lies on understanding the misinformation process itself: who initiates it, who spreads it and how fact-checking affects these patterns. These are relevant questions, because if misinformation is spread by decision-makers, it can lead to catastrophic consequences. In addition, it is important to understand the misinformation patterns that are specific to this virus, and then to observe if there are geographical or cultural differences. For instance, a false news story purported garlic as a possible means to fight COVID-19. This false claim was particularly widely followed and spread in the UK, and it led to a garlic shortage in China.
How directly can the fact-checking observatory increase journalists’ and press agencies’ awareness of misinformation?
Gyöngyi Kovacs: Since the tool is brand new, we have not been actively sharing it yet. However, any information on reliable fact-checking sources would indeed be useful for journalists and news agencies. One of my biggest hopes is that this pandemic has an impact on what is considered newsworthy and how news is reported.
As a final thought, how do you think we can effectively counteract misinformation?
Gyöngyi Kovacs: Data tracking alone is obviously not enough, we need to know the methods and means that work best to effectively change people’s minds and break the patterns.
Even though decision-makers have the most important role to play, in the case of vaccine acceptance for instance, you also need to involve the whole population. But people differ from another, in terms of who they trust, their media literacy, preferred social media… For instance, influencers might be the most direct way to reach a certain segment of the population, but they would be useless when trying to reach another one, so it is important to realise that there is no one good solution suitable for everybody.