With fake news and the spread of misinformation a defining issue of our time, during Covid-19 incorrect, misleading or false medical advice has spanned the globe through online media faster than anyone could correct it.
Experts were left not only addressing a pandemic, but they also found themselves combatting what Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General, calls an ‘infodemic’.
“While the virus spreads, misinformation makes the job of our heroic health workers even harder. It is diverting the attention of decision-makers. And it causes confusion and spreads fear to the general public,” says Ghebreyesus.
“At WHO, we’re not just battling the virus; we’re also battling the trolls and conspiracy theorists that push misinformation and undermine the outbreak response.
“As a Guardian headline noted today, ‘Misinformation on the coronavirus might be the most contagious thing about it.’”
Social media is not the only culprit. According to the World Economic Forum, quoting Carlos Navarro Colorado, head of Public Health Emergencies at UNICEF, mainstream news outlets and news websites are also fanning the flames of panic.
“Often, they pick the most extreme pictures they can find,” Navarro says. “There is overkill on the use of [personal protective equipment], and that tends to be the photos that are published everywhere, in all major newspapers and TV. That is, in fact, sending the wrong message.”
WHO’s has responded by creating a new information platform called WHO Information Network for Epidemics (EPI-WIN), which includes a myth-busters page, with the aim of “using a series of amplifiers to share tailored information with specific target groups”.
The respected medical journal Lancet produced a report: How to fight an infodemic.
Sundar Pichai, CEO, Google and Alphabet, weighed in Tweeting: “We want to help businesses and schools impacted by COVID-19 stay connected: starting this week, we’ll roll out free access to our advanced Hangouts Meet video-conferencing capabilities through July 1, 2020, to all G Suite customers globally.”
It is, however, at the local level where most of the risk needs to be mitigated and the effects are felt. Municipalities and agencies, therefore, need to know authorities available to them to respond to public health emergencies — they also need to be able to coordinate plans and practical measures.
While HollowSquare was initially conceived as a counter-terrorism project for municipalities managing information during a crisis, recent talk in light of the Covid-19 experience
has been about extending its mission to be a crisis-agnostic tool.
There is no reason preventing HollowSquare database from being a tool to assist municipalities in planning and running crisis desktop exercises.
As Gillies Crichton, head of risk for Glasgow Airport, says, it does not matter what the cause of closing an airport may be, the preparation for a crisis and road to recovery remains the same.
While the risk being addressed may change, the players often remain the same.
Graham Ellis, Assistant Commissioner, Operational Resilience / Special Operations Group, London Fire Brigade, at the colloquium talking about the need to prepare before a crisis, remarked: “It’s not about learning to dance at the ball, it’s about knowing who you’re dancing with and going to dance practice.”
In a later conversation about coordination, he added: “It is all about communication.”
By communication, Ellis was referring not only to systems and processes — knowing the right people and how to connect with them is equally important.
The value of desktop exercises is that they stress-test systems by connecting people, leaving them with much-needed contact details and insights from partners in crisis.
As Paul McCarthy, AWS Global Physical Security Architect, says: “Everyone reads instructions according to their own priorities, these types of exercises remove confusion and provide clarity for what is truly important.”
At core, HollowSquare creates a communication ecosystem allowing the free flow of credible information and data, which would be invaluable to the communities in times of crisis.
In short, it would identify in advance a series of amplifiers and provide a communications funnel to them.
Think of it, if you will, as a means of inoculating the infosphere immune system.
The plan remains to have the MVP HollowSquare database ready in New York in June and its first exercise in El Paso in November 2020, based on a terrorist attack.
The suggestion is now to add elements that would allow HollowSquare to be a crisis agnostic tool and to begin gathering material around a public health crisis.
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