Information Sharing During an Epidemic: Policies and Best Practices

Brian W. Langloss and Sarah Rispin Sedlak
Mar 19 2020

 

As the world struggles to contain the economic, political, social, and health impacts of the COVID-19 virus, it is also wrestling with how both online censorship and the open internet have helped the spread of the virus.

The Authors

Brian W. Langloss, PhD

Lead Policy Analyst @ SciPol.org

 

Sarah Rispin Sedlak, JD

Lead Policy Analyst @ SciPol.org

International health authorities have developed policies and best practices for tracking and sharing information about novel viruses as they emerge, meant to contain their spread and limit the impact on human populations. However, government efforts to control information caused China to depart from existing international policy mandating information sharing during an emerging pandemic, making it more difficult to contain the virus early.

Social media and other digital platforms provide critical opportunities outside of official channels to share accurate information about emerging diseases. Through digital epidemiology, public health researchers can identify and track outbreaks as they occur. Social media has also enabled public health experts to connect with each other and the general public to a remarkable degree during this crisis. However, these online platforms have also facilitated the spread of misleading information about the coronavirus. While international health authorities, governments and social media companies are engaged in efforts to combat it, they are struggling to keep up.

The current coronavirus outbreak has taught us important lessons about the negative impact of closed information regimes on efforts to contain and combat emerging pandemics, the importance of an open internet, and the dangers of mis- and disinformation.

We make the following policy recommendations for acting now and later to facilitate information sharing and fully leverage the power of the internet during emerging pandemics. A full list of recommendations can be found in the policy brief on page 14.

 

Recommendations for Governments

  1. Congress, the State Department, and the World Health Organization should investigate and highlight the role of government censorship in allowing the COVID-19 virus to spread.

  2. Governments and international organizations should increase efforts to promote a free and open internet.

  3. The global public health community should join with open internet advocates to promote the free exchange of information online required to safeguard public health.

  4. The US government and international authorities should provide direct support for digital epidemiology projects that actively monitor the internet and social media for emerging health threats.

  5. Congress, in consultation with social media companies and epidemiologists, should develop a legal framework that allows the sharing of information between tech platforms and digital epidemiology projects.

  6. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and Food and Drug Administration (FDA) should continue work to identify false claims regarding coronavirus treatments and more actively promote their findings on social media.

  7. The FDA and FTC should pursue enforcement actions against companies who advertise false coronavirus treatments.

  8. Public health agencies, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, should not only continue current efforts to combat misinformation on the coronavirus, but also evaluate their impact to develop best practices to do so during the next health emergency.

  9. Public health agencies should establish permanent public-private partnerships between the global health community, government agencies, and social media and other tech companies to facilitate the rapid and effective sharing of accurate, verified information and public service announcements.

Recommendations for Companies

  1. Tech companies should continue to promote and share accurate, verified information and public service announcements about the coronavirus.

  2. Tech companies should continue to identify, label, and warn users about inaccurate information about the COVID-19 virus that has been hosted on their platforms.

  3. Tech companies should develop standards for identifying the subset of false information that is so harmful that it should be removed during a public health crisis.

  4. Tech companies should work with the government to develop and implement a legal framework for sharing and protecting user information with digital epidemiology projects that detect and track emerging health threats.

 

 


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