UCT’s Wasserman to address first WHO infodemiology conference

30 June 2020 | Story Carla Bernardo. Photo Robyn Walker. Read time 5 min.
Prof Herman Wasserman’s keynote address will take place on Tuesday, 30 June. While it is not open to the public, a public webinar covering the conference’s main findings will take place later in July.
Prof Herman Wasserman’s keynote address will take place on Tuesday, 30 June. While it is not open to the public, a public webinar covering the conference’s main findings will take place later in July.

The University of Cape Town’s (UCT) Professor Herman Wasserman has been invited to deliver a keynote address at the World Health Organization’s (WHO) first infodemiology conference.

Wasserman is a professor of media studies and the director of UCT’s Centre for Film and Media Studies. He has researched and published extensively on misinformation (unintentional sharing of false news) and disinformation (the deliberate spread of false news) and will share his work, insights and experiences with peers from around the world, as well as representatives from the United Nations (UN), public health authorities and, of course, the WHO.

The 1st WHO Infodemiology Conference, as the name suggests, deals with the phenomenon of an ‘infodemic’. According to the WHO, an infodemic is an “overabundance of information – some accurate and some not – occurring during an epidemic”. The scientific conference, of which Wasserman’s keynote address is a part, will take place from 30 June to 16 July 2020.

UCT News caught up with Wasserman ahead of his keynote address, which takes place on Tuesday, 30 June 2020. We asked him to give us a brief idea of what he’ll be talking about, why it’s important and how the public can get involved with the conference.

Carla Bernardo (CB): Firstly, congratulations on this incredible opportunity. How are you feeling about addressing the WHO?

Herman Wasserman (HW): I am honoured to have the opportunity to participate in the first infodemiology conference hosted by the WHO. I look forward to learning more about the extent of the ‘infodemic’ of misinformation from colleagues from around the world. I am especially excited that participants will be drawn from a range of disciplines, ranging from health sciences to mathematics and computational sciences, to behaviour science to digital analytics, as well as representatives from UN agencies and public health authorities. The aim of the conference is to give us as researchers the opportunity to speak to colleagues from fields that we don’t always get to interact with and to develop interdisciplinary approaches to tackle the ‘infodemic’.

CB: How did the opportunity come about?

HW: I have been doing research on mis- and disinformation in several African countries for a number of years, collaborating with international colleagues (such as the work I’ve done with Dani Madrid-Morales from the University of Houston). We have done survey and focus group research to explore how widespread the perceived exposure to misinformation is in Africa (we found that it is much higher than in the United States, for instance), whether people share misinformation knowingly (they do, at an alarming rate) and what the motivations are for sharing misinformation. Currently, we are working on a National Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences-funded study on misinformation pertaining to China in the context of COVID-19.

The WHO approached me to ask that I present a keynote address to their first infodemiology conference, presumably on the basis of this research.

CB: As the session is a closed one, could you give us some insight into what you’ll be sharing?

HW: The conference was preceded by a public preconference, and you can find more information about the information presented there on the WHO’s website. You can also see tweets about that conference at the Twitter hashtag #infodemiology2020. Main outcomes from the closed conference will be shared in a public webinar, for which you can register.

In my keynote, I will argue that media and cultural studies as a scholarly field provide us with some tools and methods to understand misinformation as a multi-levelled, complex and evolving socio-cultural phenomenon. We cannot merely try to counter misinformation as texts that circulate in isolation by correcting and countering them with facts – these texts of misinformation need to be understood within social dynamics, belief systems and material circumstances.

Just like a virus needs a host environment, misinformation always circulates within particular contexts, between people with particular identities, histories and cultures, constrained or amplified by particular regulatory policies. Media and cultural studies can help us understand this host environment better, in order to design more appropriate interventions.

CB: Finally, why is infodemiology (and tackling it) so important in the context of a pandemic?

HW: The notion of ‘infodemiology’ is described by the WHO as the “science of infodemic management”. It follows on the statement by the director-general of the WHO, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, earlier this year, that “We’re not just fighting an epidemic; we’re fighting an infodemic,” referring to mis- and disinformation that “spreads faster and more easily than this virus”. The WHO recognises that the overabundance of information can make it difficult for individuals and communities to know how to make sense of the pandemic and how to protect themselves, and mis- or disinformation can have literally deadly consequences in a pandemic. In South Africa, and around the world, we have seen the rapid and wide spread of false information, conspiracy theories and rumours about the pandemic and it is important that we pool our scholarly resources to find ways of understanding and countering it.

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