Pandemic misinformation index: lessons for meeting SDGs

A special index drawn up to assess a country’s vulnerability to misinformation has been unveiled, drawing on data on misinformation and disinformation during the COVID-19 pandemic, and including trust in governments and science, which could have important implications for public support of climate change policies and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) generally.

The index, based on modelling work by the University of Auckland, New Zealand, used trust in science, social media penetration and policy interventions to prototype a ‘misinformation vulnerability index’. Initial findings show a strong correlation – the more resilient an economy is to misinformation, the higher its vaccine uptake and vice versa.

“Researchers and policy-makers need to understand what makes people vulnerable to such information, so they can develop effective responses,” Dawn Freshwater, vice-chancellor of the University of Auckland, told University World News, noting that this was the first time an index on the impact of disinformation and misinformation had been developed in response to the pandemic.

“Trust is a scarce commodity,” Freshwater said. “We correlate the index with the vaccine uptake in this study, but we could correlate it in the future with climate science and climate misinformation.”

“The direct negative correlation between trusting government and respondents’ attitudes to science is found through this methodology. The higher the trust in government, the lower the anti-vaccine attitudes were. Now translate that into climate change or any of the SDGs, and what it tells us is that trusting government can counter the negative issues around misinformation.”

But she also cautioned, even though the higher the trust in government is correlated with lower anti-vaccine attitudes, “there are issues of leadership more broadly,” which also needed to be examined.

The research and modelling were conducted by Auckland as part of the post-pandemic response by universities under the Association of Pacific Rim Universities (APRU) network, with some 60 research-intensive universities in the Asia-Pacific, North America and Latin America.

In 2021 APRU set up a Working Group on preparing for the next pandemic in response to a direct call to the group by New Zealand’s former prime minister Helen Clark for a university-led response.

Clark was co-chair of an international independent panel of experts on pandemic preparedness and response which reported to the World Health Organization in 2020.

Freshwater, who chaired the APRU group examining the ‘infodemic’, said early versions of the model were tested and refined using input from the network. In particular, case studies prepared by research collaborators in APRU member universities helped underpin the modelling, for example by taking into account additional information such as cultural factors and variations in information literacy.

The model provided economy-level insights into the impacts of dis- and misinformation on citizens and ultimately their health as they make personal decisions about vaccinations, Freshwater said, but she cautioned: “This is a first iteration model only, it demonstrates the potential of the approach that we’re taking. We’re refining the model, there’s much more work to be done.”

Application to climate change and global challenges

“We’re now working on how we can develop an internationally comparable measure of misinformation and the resilience to misinformation that can apply, not just to the epidemic, but to climate change and other global challenges that reverse the progress towards the SDGs, because we do know progress has been slow,” Freshwater said.

Some of that slow progress was linked to the amount of effort and resourcing put into SDGs at the country level, she noted, “but we’re particularly interested in the reverse progress created through misinformation and vulnerability to misinformation”.

“We see this as an opportunity to use a data-led, evidence-based approach to recognise the multifaceted nature of information and information overload, to use in investigation into country-specific conditions that either help or hinder progress towards the overall achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals.”

A version of the ‘misinformation vulnerability index’ was unveiled in mid-November at the APEC (Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation) University Leaders’ Forum held at Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok on 16 November and hosted by APRU.

“We have a significant responsibility, looking at misinformation and disinformation and false misleading information that’s in physical and digital spaces,” Freshwater told the forum. “It causes confusion and it has had an impact on the trajectory of the pandemic.”

She added: “The significant economic impact connected to vaccine refusal is forecast to be US$7.93 billion in [lost] global GDP, and that’s for every million people vaccinated.”

Universities in the network helped the University of Auckland to compile case studies, including from Australia “where we see that low levels of digital health literacy were associated with endorsing COVID-19 misinformation,” Freshwater told the Bangkok meeting.

Yet, even in a highly advanced economy such as Singapore, information around COVID-19 vaccines, including on the severity of vaccine side effects, affected vaccination uptake.

In Singapore, social media is the second most consumed media platform. One survey in Singapore showed that around 70% of the respondents “shared that they had unwittingly circulated inaccurate information. And these people are not uneducated. We’re talking about people that think that they’re able to discern inaccurate information,” Freshwater said.

Further development of the index

Freshwater told University World News the hope was to further develop the index into an overarching ‘misinformation resilience index’.

“We looked at trust in science, we looked at legislative policy steps taken and we looked at social media penetration. We brought all of those together to develop a misinformation resilience index. And when you bring them all together, they are actually quite strong [in predicting resilience],” she said.

Some of the measures and inputs used in developing the indices included the Wellcome Global Monitor 2018 Trust in Scientists Index, Poynter’s 2019 guide to anti-misinformation actions and GWI (formerly GlobalWebIndex) online research that looked at trust and misinformation linked to digital information and social media.

“One of the challenges of the infodemic, as opposed to the pandemic, is that the impacts are psychological and behavioural, as opposed to physiological – you cannot directly test for the presence of misinformation in a population in the same way that you can test for pathogens,” according to a paper prepared for APRU by Jingwen Mu, a global rankings expert and senior global strategy advisor to the vice-chancellor at the University of Auckland, and David Shanks, former New Zealand chief censor, acting as a consultant to the university.

However, they noted that “enough is known about the dynamics of misinformation and the infodemic to be able to identify suitable proxies for measuring likely exposure to harmful infodemic effects and the vulnerability or resilience to them”.

“We really need overarching indices, that bring together a number of measures, that have credibility and scientific backing, are well respected, but that people can adapt to, and address,” Freshwater noted. For example, she said, “I am interested in cultural aspects,” which she acknowledged were harder to measure and compare.