The dangerous liaisons between epidemics and infodemics

In the latest two years, Covid-19 taught us many things. Among them is the critical role of information diffusion in health emergencies and crisis management.
Not only the complexities of science knowledge and the scientific method are difficult to communicate to a broad audience, but the contemporary media context – increasingly dominated by digital social networks – tends to yield extreme oversimplifications, polarized narratives and misinformation spreading, thus leading to a phenomenon that has been frequently called information epidemic, or «infodemic».

In a new commentary out in «Cell» journal, Infodemics: A new challenge for public health , an international team of 19 researchers analyzes the analogies and the divergences between epidemics and infodemics. Through a thorough scrutiny of agents, mediums, timescale, networks of interaction and control measures, the paper argues that an infodemic – although intertwined with an epidemic – is a distinct phenomenon resulting from many interacting and overlapping processes such as the production, consumption, and amplification of (potentially harmful) information online.
«Epidemics and infodemics are not the same, but they're strongly connected and it's important to consider them as mutually dependent and interacting phenomena, in other to allow early prediction of epidemiological trends and effective management of communication during future health crisis, epidemic outbreaks and vaccination campaigns», says Michele Tizzoni, ISI Foundation Senior Research Scientist and co-author of the commentary. «We need to better understand how individuals acquire or avoid information and how those decisions may influence their behavior. To reach this goal, we substantially need an interdisciplinary approach. Like the one we adopted in writing this paper, that involved a team of researchers coming from many different fields: complex systems scientists, epidemiologists, data scientists, and public health officials of WHO».
Infodemics: A new challenge for public health”, Sylvie C. Briand, Matteo Cinelli, Tim Nguyen, Rosamund Lewis, Dimitri Prybylski, Carlo M. Valensise, Vittoria Colizza, Alberto Eugenio Tozzi, Nicola Perra, Andrea Baronchelli, Michele Tizzoni, Fabiana Zollo, Antonio Scala, Tina Purnat, Christine Czerniak, Adam J. Kucharski, Akhona Tshangela, Lei Zhou, Walter Quattrociocchi. Cell, 9th December 2021.