To its credit, Google has made important progress in this regard. Its search-related guidelines prioritize expertise, authoritativeness, and trustworthiness; now, when you search for something such as “flu symptoms,” you’ll find Harvard- and Mayo Clinic–backed knowledge-graph-information panels appear on the right-hand side. The data in these panels include downloadable PDFs for more information. Facebook also says it’s working to address misinfodemics through a new feature that shares additional context for articles, allowing users to click on the image and see links to related articles, maps visualizing where a particular article has been shared, source information, and related Wikipedia pages.
It’s not just the big platforms working to stop misinfodemics. Our work on the Credibility Coalition, an effort to develop web-wide standards around online-content credibility, and PATH, a project aimed at translating and surfacing scientific claims in new ways, is part of two efforts of many to think about data standards and information access across different platforms. The Trust Project, meanwhile, has developed a set of machine-readable trust indicators for news platforms; Hypothesis is a tool used by scientists and others to annotate content online; and Hoaxy visualizes the spread of claims online.
The next plague is coming. Is America ready?
Even the CDC and the Mayo Clinic maintain Instagram presences, though their collective following is 160,000 people, or 0.1 percent of Kim Kardashian’s follower count. Health advocates such as Jennifer Gunter (“Twitter’s resident gynecologist”), who blogs about women’s health, debunking celebrity-endorsed myths to a broad audience, and the Canadian professor Timothy Caulfield, whose health-video series about extreme remedies around the world was recently picked up by Netflix, are gaining recognition online. Doctors around the world are bridging gaps by borrowing strategies from marketing, and scientists are advocating for collaboration between social influencers and public-health experts.
Misinfodemics can seem devastating. One lesson learned from urbanization, like what happened in 19th-century London, is that when people come together, the risk of disease spread increases. We still don’t completely understand why, especially because new evidence changes scientific consensus over time. After London’s Great Stink, researchers found enough evidence to develop a new understanding of disease transmission, updating the dominant idea that smells caused illness to the new germ theory of disease. Ultimately, there was not one solution but an ecosystem of solutions: People started using antiseptics to keep surgical procedures sanitary, taking antiviral medications to treat diseases such as herpes and HIV, participating in community-vaccination campaigns to protect from (and eradicate) diseases such as polio and smallpox, and creating sewage systems separate from drinking-water sources.* Today, though the Thames is still polluted, it is no longer a consistent origin of catastrophic epidemics.