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Chapter 1

😵‍💫 How noisy information environments affect health

🔊 We live in a noisy information environment. It’s the volume of the news, it’s constant updates on your social media feeds, and sometimes dubious information that pops up in conversations with family and friends, and it can affect your health.

☁️ Your information environment is unique to you. It’s influenced by socio-cultural and commercial determinants of health, access to the internet, access to media, interactions with individualized content algorithms, geolocation, and sources of information including people and groups that you trust.

🚏When it comes to your health, how do you look for, find, and act on health information, and how does it find you?

  • Should you trust that fitness influencer on TikTok? 
  • Is that ad for the natural cure to diabetes true? 
  • Why are experts debating the benefits of booster vaccines on TV? 
  • Why did the local health department issue an alert for a measles outbreak? 
  • Did the “life hack” shared in the mom group on WhatsApp about using antibiotics to cure kids’ sniffles work? 
  • Is it true that your aunt, who says she is using a special phone app with sonic vibrations to help her hearing, doesn’t need to go to the doctor anymore?
  • When you Google remedies for a weird rash and exhaustion, which website would you trust?

👀 Within your information environment it might be challenging to distinguish accurate from inaccurate health information.

⚠️ During public health emergencies, looking for health information becomes urgent and is complicated by limited availability of credible, accurate information. Lots of concerns and misinformation will circulate while health guidance is trying to keep up with developing science.

🕳️ In both day-to-day life and in emergencies, your information environment may make it difficult to find information that can help improve or protect your health.

🌟 Social media platforms are designed to show you content that is highly engaging and likely to generate clicks, views, or shares — content that isn’t always the advice your doctor or a health worker would provide.

⏩ Misinformation, or false or inaccurate information, can be spread quickly, including by well-meaning people who believe it to be true.

💣 Disinformation is the purposeful spread of false or inaccurate information, often with political or financial motives, and can cause serious societal harm.

😒 In low-trust environments, such as communities that have been affected by historic disenfranchisement, violence or humanitarian conflict, people might be less trusting. Vital information from health authorities might not reach them, or be trusted when it does. Even then, the information might not be in a format or language that is easily understood.

🫸 Mis- and disinformation can further erode trust by propagating conspiracy theories. They can also stigmatize groups and promote those who advocate against evidence-based diagnostics, treatments, and health guidance.

🤒Anytime someone is searching for health information, such as when they have a new symptom or have been recently diagnosed, they might encounter outdated or inaccurate information or mis- and disinformation.

📑 People’s health, digital and media literacy, and access to information sources can affect their ability to navigate this confusing information landscape.

😫 Navigating an unhealthy information environment may include your questions and concerns going unaddressed, experiencing information overload, sorting through conflicting, outdated or inaccurate information, or encountering information voids, where you look for accurate health information that you trust but can’t find it. The potential harms might be making poor health decisions, not seeking needed care, or taking some kind of action that harms your health, such as accepting useless or non-recommended treatments.

📉 This can have real-world consequences on individual and public health. Examples include people with cancer choosing alternative treatments over evidence-based ones, or parents refusing vaccines for their children because of long-debunked vaccine safety myths on social media.

🗺️ This is a global problem. A rapidly digitizing society makes it so much easier to spread low-quality, harmful information almost instantly. In fact, because social media platforms make money by keeping users engaged, this can incentivize the spread of misinformation because it is highly engaging.

📐 People working in public health are struggling to understand the scope of the unhealthy information environment problem, and how to address it.

🔍 Without assessing how infodemics and the information environment affect specific communities, we are unable to develop effective solutions.

💁 So what’s the bottom line?

🔵 The information environment surrounds us, at the individual level, within our family and friend circles, and our communities. It includes the health systems that serve us and our wider society.

🫥 Because infodemics have diverse impacts, they affect different groups of people and levels of society differently.

🏥 Understanding those impacts can help public health professionals and community-based organizations design better ways to meet people’s information and health service delivery needs. They can also help with longer-term planning for better tailoring health services to community preferences.

☀️ Solutions may include: improving communications and community engagement, improving digital content, optimizing delivery of health information and services, working with trusted messengers, fixing confusing health policy, prebunking and debunking misinformation, promoting peer-to-peer engagement, and improving health literacy.

🚦Ready to problem-solve?

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