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An infodemic is a rapid and far-reaching spread of both accurate and inaccurate information about certain issues.[1][2] The word is a portmanteau of information and epidemic and is used as a metaphor to describe how misinformation and disinformation can spread like a virus from person to person and affect people like a disease.[3] This term, originally coined in 2003 by David Rothkopf, rose to prominence in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic.[3]


In his 11 May 2003 article in the Washington Post—also published in Newsday, The Record, the Oakland Tribune, and the China Daily—foreign policy expert David Rothkopf, referred to the information epidemic—or "infodemic", in the context of the 2002–2004 SARS outbreak.[4][5][6][7][8] The outbreak of SARS, which was caused by severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 1 began in a remote region in Guangdong, China, in November 2002. By the time the outbreak ended in May 2003, it had reached 30 countries and there were over 8,000 confirmed cases and 774 deaths.

Rothkopf, who was at that time, a member of the advisory committee's board of directors at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health's Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security which provides policy recommendations to the United States government and the World Health Organization,[9] said that the infodemic was the second of two concurrent epidemics.[4] Rothkopf described how the "information epidemic" transformed SARS from a regional health crisis into a "debacle" that spread globally with both economic and social repercussions.[6] He said this infodemic "was not the rapid spread of simple news via the media, nor is it simply the rumor mill on steroids. Rather, as with SARS, it is a complex phenomenon caused by the interaction of mainstream media, specialist media and internet sites, and 'informal' media, which is to say wireless phones, text messaging, pagers, faxes, and e-mail, all transmitting some combination of fact, rumor, interpretation, and propaganda."[4] Rothkopf citing the State Department, said that 2002 was the "year of the most heightened state of terrorism panic in our history" even though terrorism globally had decreased to its "lowest level since 1969".[4] His company, the Washington DC-based strategic intelligence and analysis firm Intellibridge, which he had founded in 1999, tracked the January 2003 Chinese reports on the outbreak. On 9 February 2003, Intellibridge provided their analysis to the U.S. defense community, and then posted the information on ProMED, a Federation of American Scientists Web site.[4]

The general public did not learn of the outbreak until 23 February 2003, when an elderly woman died of SARS in her home in Toronto, Canada, from Hong Kong. Her son, who spread the disease in a Toronto hospital, also died.[10] With the first death in North America, the Western media began to cover the outbreak. Rothkopf said that if more had been done earlier to manage the disease as well as information about SARS, perhaps there might not have been a worldwide panic. The infodemic spread globally, far beyond the countries that had SARS victims and "set off a chain reaction of economic and social consequences".[4] It also made it harder for health organizations to control the SARS epidemic as panic spread online.[8]

In his 15 December 2002 article entitled "Infodemiology: The epidemiology of (mis)information" in The American Journal of Medicine,[11] health researcher Gunther Eysenbach coined the term infodemiologist[12] and later used the term to refer to attempts at digital disease detection.[13][12]

Use of the term infodemic increased rapidly during the COVID-19 pandemic. A study found that from 2010-2020 there were 61 articles mentioning the word infodemic, while between 2020 and 2021 there were 14,301 published stories using the term.[3] The United Nations and the World Health Organization began using the term infodemic during the COVID-19 pandemic as early as 2 February 2020.[1][14] The related term disinfodemic (referring to COVID-19 disinformation campaigns) has been used by UNESCO.[15] By the time that the Journal of Medical Internet Research published their June 2020 issue featuring the WHO's framework for managing the infodemic related to the COVID-19 pandemic, the WHO and public health agencies had acknowledged infodemiology as an "emerging scientific field" that was of critical importance during a pandemic.[12] By 2021, the WHO had published a number of resources clarifying the infodemic.[16]

A Royal Society and British Academy joint report published in October 2020 said of infodemics that: "COVID-19 vaccine deployment faces an infodemic with misinformation often filling the knowledge void, characterised by: (1) distrust of science and selective use of expert authority, (2) distrust in pharmaceutical companies and government, (3) straightforward explanations, (4) use of emotion; and, (5) echo chambers," and to combat the ill and "inoculate the public" endorsed the Singaporean POFMA legislation, which criminalises misinformation.[17][18] The Aspen Institute even started their misinformation project before the pandemic.[19]

A blue-ribbon working group on infodemics, from the Forum on Information and Democracy, produced a report in November 2020, highlighting 250 recommendations to protect democracies, human rights, and health.[20]

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary tracked its renewed usage during the COVID-19 pandemic.[21]


In his 11 May 2003 article in the Post, Rothkopf wrote that the information epidemic or "infodemic" was a "combination of "[a] few facts, mixed with fear, speculation, and rumor, amplified and relayed swiftly worldwide by modern information technologies."[6]

On 2 February 2020, the World Health Organization defined infodemic as a "an over-abundance of information—some accurate and some not—that makes it hard for people to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance when they need it."[1] A 21 February 2021 WHO publication, said that "[a]n infodemic is too much information including false or misleading information in digital and physical environments during a disease outbreak."[16]

Eysenbach described infodemiology as the study of "the determinants and distribution of health information and misinformation".[11]

Research during COVID-19[edit]

As COVID-19 swept across the globe, information about how to stay safe and how to identify symptoms became vital. However, especially in the first phases of the pandemic, the amount of false, not validated and partially true information on the media was huge. Even seemingly reliable government sources did not always follow best practices in disseminating data about COVID-19, with many potentially misleading maps published on official websites.[2][22] The inappropriate use of maps on these websites may have contributed to political polarization in response to COVID-19 epidemiological control measures.[23] There was also a proliferation of systematic reviews of COVID-19-related evidence, not all of which was robustly conducted.[24] Researchers have pointed out a few primary challenges of communicating with the public about COVID-19. First, social media platforms that prioritize engagement over accuracy and allow fringe opinions to thrive without correction create an information ecology that is difficult to understand. Second, as fast-moving science and politics intertwine during the pandemic, making decisions related to combatting misinformation becomes complicated by a volatile political environment and frequently changing scientific information.[25] A U.S.-based survey research revealed that during March and April 2020 higher news consumption about COVID-19, especially through social media, was associated with lower levels of knowledge and more fake news beliefs.[26] However, preliminary research published in fall 2021 suggested that visual information (e.g., infographics) about science and scientists, designed to address trust, might be able to mitigate belief in misinformation about COVID-19.[27]

Combatting infodemics[edit]

Researchers have been seeking tools to combat infodemics. Gunther Eysenbach brings up four pillars of infodemic management: (1) information monitoring (infoveillance); (2) building eHealth literacy and science literacy capacity; (3) encouraging knowledge refinement and quality improvement processes such as fact-checking and peer-review; and (4) accurate and timely knowledge translation which minimizes distorting factors such as political or commercial influences.[12] Scholars also advocate for tech platforms to police their content more effectively, and empower individuals to make better decisions on their own to promote the emergence of truth. Social media companies may offer a variety of cues to help people make better judgments of whether a message is legitimate or not. For example, Facebook might, in addition to showing how many "likes" a post has received, allow the count of "dislikes" to offer a more symmetric view of opinions.[28]

Research on information dissemination during the COVID-19 pandemic identified issues with standardization and presentation of related information on official U.S. government sources, specifically state and federal government COVID-19 dashboards.[2][22] When the most authoritative sources of information are not presenting the data accurately, bad conclusions are inevitable. The research suggested official sources for information take steps to ensure the way data are collected, analyzed, and presented is up to the highest standards and adheres to all conventions.[22] Standards of web-maps for government agencies should be developed, widely published, and adhered to.[2] The web-based maps and dashboards are, if properly employed, suggested as possible ways to combat infodemics in the future.[2]

However, scholars emphasize that traditionally proposed ways to combat misinformation tend to rely on the assumption that if people encounter the correct information about an issue, they will make rational decisions based on the best scientific information available.[25] Research shows that this is often not the case and that people do not act in the best interest of scientific fact for reasons including "cognitive preferences for old habits, forgetfulness, small inconveniences in the moment, preferences for the path of least resistance, and motivated reasoning."[29] Thus, combatting misinformation should rely on a more nuanced analysis of both the content of the misinformation, as well as the socio-political environment in which it was disseminated.


Financial Times journalist Siddharth Venkataramakrishnan said in his 20 August 2021 article that casting the spread of misinformation and disinformation in terms of disease risks oversimplifying the problem and that "unlike the status of being healthy or infected by an actual disease, what constitutes accurate information is also subject to change." Venkataramakrishnan also pointed out that the focus of the infodemic has often been on "conspiracy theorists and snake-oil salesmen", largely ignoring the at times problematic actions and confusing messaging of governments and public health bodies throughout the pandemic.[30]

Communication scholars Felix Simon and Chico Camargo at Oxford University said in their 20 July 2021 New Media & Society article that infodemic as metaphor "can be misleading, as it conflates multiple forms of social behaviour, oversimplifies a complex situation and helps constitute a phenomenon for which concrete evidence remains patchy." Pointing out that the infodemic as a concept is "journalistically powerful, intuitively satisfying, and in strong resonance with personal experiences and intuition", Simon and Camargo argue that empirical evidence for many of the claims surrounding the term is lacking. Instead of a genuine phenomenon they see the infodemic as "a territorial claim for those who want to apply their skills, a signal to others that they are working in this area, or a framing device to tie one's work to larger debates".[3] Along the same lines, Krause, Freiling, and Scheufele warn of difficulties related to creating "an infodemic about the infodemic" and that research surrounding the term warrants clarification and acknowledgment of uncertainties related to its novelty and impact.[31]

In popular culture[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c "Novel Coronavirus(2019-nCoV) Situation Report - 13" (PDF). World Health Organization. 2 February 2020. Retrieved 30 July 2022.
  2. ^ a b c d e Mooney, Peter; Juhász, Levente (July 2020). "Mapping COVID-19: How web-based maps contribute to the infodemic". Dialogues in Human Geography. 10 (2): 265–270. doi:10.1177/2043820620934926. S2CID 220415906.
  3. ^ a b c d Simon, Felix M; Camargo, Chico Q (20 July 2021). "Autopsy of a metaphor: The origins, use and blind spots of the 'infodemic'". New Media & Society. 25 (8): 2219–2240. doi:10.1177/14614448211031908. S2CID 237692119.
  4. ^ a b c d e f Rothkopf, David J. (11 May 2003). "When the Buzz Bites Back". The Washington Post. Washington, D.C. p. B.01. Retrieved 19 September 2022.
  5. ^ Rothkopf, David J. (14 May 2003). "SARS Also Spurs an 'Information Epidemic'". Newsday. Long Island, N.Y. p. A29. ProQuest 279705520.
  6. ^ a b c Rothkopf, David J. (18 May 2003). "SARS, fear, rumors feed unprecedented 'infodemic'". The Record. Bergen County, N.J. p. O01. ProQuest 279705520.
  7. ^ "SARS triggers an information epidemic". Oakland Tribune. Oakland, Calif. 18 May 2003. ProQuest 351861262.
  8. ^ a b Ricchiardi, Sherry (1 June 2003). "On the SARS beat". American Journalism Review. 25 (5): 36–42. Gale A102904047 ProQuest 216859150.
  9. ^ "Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security — Biosecurity, Global Health Security, and Global Catastrophic Risks". Open Philanthropy Project. 13 January 2017. Retrieved 8 February 2017.
  10. ^ Low, Donald (2004). "SARS: Lessons from Toronto". Learning from SARS: Preparing for the Next Disease Outbreak: Workshop Summary. National Academies Press. pp. 63–71. doi:10.17226/10915. ISBN 978-0-309-09154-1. PMID 22553895.
  11. ^ a b Eysenbach, Gunther (December 2002). "Infodemiology: the epidemiology of (mis)information". The American Journal of Medicine. 113 (9): 763–765. CiteSeerX doi:10.1016/s0002-9343(02)01473-0. PMID 12517369. S2CID 35788388.
  12. ^ a b c d Eysenbach, Gunther (29 June 2020). "How to Fight an Infodemic: The Four Pillars of Infodemic Management". Journal of Medical Internet Research. 22 (6): e21820. doi:10.2196/21820. PMC 7332253. PMID 32589589. S2CID 220120867.
  13. ^ Eysenbach, Gunther (2006). "Infodemiology: tracking flu-related searches on the web for syndromic surveillance". AMIA Annual Symposium Proceedings. 2006: 244–248. PMC 1839505. PMID 17238340.
  14. ^ "UN tackles 'infodemic' of misinformation". United Nations. 31 March 2020.
  15. ^ Capaldo, Giuliana Ziccardi (October 2020). The Global Community Yearbook of International Law and Jurisprudence 2019. Oxford University Press. p. 341. ISBN 978-0-19-751355-2. Retrieved 20 May 2021.
  16. ^ a b "Infodemic". World Health Organization. 26 February 2021. Retrieved 19 September 2022. An infodemic is too much information including false or misleading information in digital and physical environments during a disease outbreak. It causes confusion and risk-taking behaviours that can harm health.
  17. ^ Royal Society; The British Academy (21 October 2020). COVID-19 vaccine deployment: Behaviour, ethics, misinformation and policy strategies (PDF) (Report). Royal Society.
  18. ^ Knapton, Sarah (10 November 2020). "Spreading anti-vaxx myths 'should be made a criminal offence'". The Telegraph.
  19. ^ INFODEMIC – Documentary Series Launch Event (Video). The Aspen Institute. 29 April 2021. Retrieved 30 April 2021 – via YouTube.
  20. ^ "250 recommendations on how to stop 'infodemics'". Forum on Information & Democracy. 12 November 2020. Retrieved 15 November 2020.
  21. ^ "Infodemic: An Epidemic of Information". Merriam-Webster. Spring 2020.
  22. ^ a b c Adams, Aaron M.; Chen, Xiang; Li, Weidong; Chuanrong, Zhang (27 July 2023). "Normalizing the pandemic: exploring the cartographic issues in state government COVID-19 dashboards". Journal of Maps. 19 (5): 1–9. Bibcode:2023JMaps..19Q...1A. doi:10.1080/17445647.2023.2235385.
  23. ^ Engel, Claudia; Rodden, Jonathan; Tabellini, Marco (18 March 2022). "Policies to influence perceptions about COVID-19 risk: The case of maps". Science Advances. 8 (11): eabm5106. Bibcode:2022SciA....8M5106E. doi:10.1126/sciadv.abm5106. PMC 8932671. PMID 35302842.
  24. ^ Abbott, Rebecca; Bethel, Alison; Rogers, Morwenna; Whear, Rebecca; Orr, Noreen; Shaw, Liz; Stein, Ken; Thompson Coon, Jo (3 June 2021). "Characteristics, quality and volume of the first 5 months of the COVID-19 evidence synthesis infodemic: a meta-research study". BMJ Evidence-Based Medicine. 27 (3): bmjebm–2021–111710. doi:10.1136/bmjebm-2021-111710. PMC 9132873. PMID 34083212.
  25. ^ a b Scheufele, Dietram A.; Krause, Nicole M.; Freiling, Isabelle (December 2021). "Misinformed about the 'infodemic?' Science's ongoing struggle with misinformation". Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition. 10 (4): 522–526. doi:10.1016/j.jarmac.2021.10.009. ISSN 2211-369X.
  26. ^ Gerosa, T.; Gui, M.; Hargittai, E.; & Nguyen, M. H. (2021). "(Mis) informed During COVID-19: How Education Level and Information Sources Contribute to Knowledge Gaps". International Journal of Communication. 15: 22.
  27. ^ Agley, Jon; Xiao, Yunyu; Thompson, Esi E; Chen, Xiwei; Golzarri-Arroyo, Lilian (14 October 2021). "Intervening on Trust in Science to Reduce Belief in COVID-19 Misinformation and Increase COVID-19 Preventive Behavioral Intentions: Randomized Controlled Trial". Journal of Medical Internet Research. 23 (10): e32425. doi:10.2196/32425. PMC 8519341. PMID 34581678.
  28. ^ Buchanan, Mark (September 2020). "Managing the infodemic". Nature Physics. 16 (9): 894. Bibcode:2020NatPh..16..894B. doi:10.1038/s41567-020-01039-5. S2CID 225343682.
  29. ^ National Academies of Sciences, Engineering (23 July 2020). Encouraging Adoption of Protective Behaviors to Mitigate the Spread of COVID-19: Strategies for Behavior Change. doi:10.17226/25881. ISBN 978-0-309-68101-8. S2CID 241252994.
  30. ^ Venkataramakrishnan, Siddharth (25 August 2020). "The real fake news about Covid-19". Financial Times.
  31. ^ Krause, Nicole M.; Freiling, Isabelle; Scheufele, Dietram A. (22 May 2022). "The 'Infodemic' Infodemic: Toward a More Nuanced Understanding of Truth-Claims and the Need for (Not) Combatting Misinformation". The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science. 700 (1). doi:10.1177/0002716222108626. S2CID 246965663. Retrieved 21 March 2024.
  32. ^ "PODCAST_FAKE NEWS_3". Goethe-Institut (in Spanish).