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Omicron: How to Process and Handle New Variant Information and Utilize Verifiable Sources

News and social media outlets have seen a new wave of misleading and false information about the Omicron variant since the first appearance of the coronavirus. Although misinformation about COVID-19 has been constant, the emergence of Omicron has fueled new false claims and given life to old ones. 

As scientists and public health officials still have much to learn about the new variant, impatience prompts many people to seek any information they can find. Given the uncertainty around this ever-changing virus, it can be challenging to know where to turn for reliable news and guidance. 

The COVID “Infodemic” 

When addressing the 2020 Munich Security Conference, World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus characterized COVID-19 this way: “We’re not just fighting a pandemic; we’re fighting an infodemic. Fake news spreads faster and more easily than this virus, and is just as dangerous.” 

In 2020, infodemic rose to prevalence as a term reflecting the vast spread of information—often false—about the COVID pandemic. It also refers to intentional attempts to mislead audiences by promoting unconventional agendas and undermining current public health efforts. The WHO contends that an infodemic creates confusion, fear, and distrust among citizens. As a result, an infodemic makes it difficult for decision-makers to identify and implement viable solutions. 

Within two weeks of Omicron’s identification, misinformation about this new variant spread across print and digital media. One conspiracy theory posited that COVID vaccines caused Omicron. Another claimed that pharmaceutical companies and governments helped proliferate the variant to undercut ivermectin and other scientifically unverified medicines to treat COVID-19. 

People acting on misinformation can potentially harm their physical and mental health. False claims and fake news stories cause other harms like diminished trust in public health experts and policy decision-makers. They also discourage adherence to preventative measures and stigmatize people the pandemic directly affects. Furthermore, whether intentional or not, misinformation weakens COVID-related debate and discussion and threatens public safety and human rights. 

Finding Reliable Information and Avoiding Fake News 

The WHO has called on various print and online media companies to identify and red-flag misinformation about COVID and other public health threats. The organization has also offered to collaborate with academics, technology experts, and policy-makers to take actionable steps to prevent the spread of misinformation. 

In the meantime, fake news and conspiracy theories continue to flourish. However, separating fact from falsehood does not have to be complicated or daunting. You can apply some strategies to pinpoint fake news and prevent the spread of false information. 

One strategy is to look for verifiable evidence and citations that support claims. An online article should have hyperlinks to sources you can click on. If a piece refers to another article or study, it should include a link to that primary source. If you are unfamiliar with the source or are unsure about an article’s factual statements, go to fact-checking sites like Snopes or Factcheck.org. 

When interpreting health information, be sure to check your biases. Articles that convey more opinions than verifiable facts might have the purpose of stirring emotions. When expressing their opinions, authors should disclose their interests or acknowledge their point of view. 

Some information might seem so outlandish that it could be satire. Such content can potentially fuel conspiracy theories, as did a movie poster titled “The Omicron Variant.” Although the image included a disclaimer about its satirical intent, it got more than 1,700 Tweets, leading some readers to believe that it was proof that global organizations falsified Omicron’s existence. 

Another way to identify trustworthy content is to consider the source. Is the publisher identifiable? Is their primary purpose to disseminate credible information, or do they appear to have another agenda like selling a product? Does the article have an author with a byline and appropriate credentials? 

Website URLs that end in “.edu” or “.gov” are generally credible. Websites of federal agencies like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) or the National Institutes of Health (NIH) are good sources to consult. The WHOis perhaps the leading authority of global health issues, including COVID-19. Finally, look for a county- or state-level health department for information relevant to your region or community. 

Finally, many people share health-related information out of concern for their families and friends. However, sharing content that has not gone through proper vetting can be dangerous during a pandemic. You can help safeguard people in your social circles by thoroughly reviewing information before you pass it along. 

Research and materials for this article were compiled, written, and distributed on behalf of the National Public Health Information Coalition. The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the various authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the National Public Health Information Coalition or its members. 

References: 

  1. https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2021/12/10/omicron-misinformation/ 
  1. https://www.who.int/director-general/speeches/detail/munich-security-conference 
  1. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/14614448211031908 
  1. https://www.who.int/news/item/23-09-2020-managing-the-covid-19-infodemic-promoting-healthy-behaviours-and-mitigating-the-harm-from-misinformation-and-disinformation 
  1. https://www.un.org/en/un-coronavirus-communications-team/un-tackling-‘infodemic’-misinformation-and-cybercrime-covid-19 
  1. https://libguides.sbcc.edu/covid-19/evaluatingsources 
  1. https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/health/2021/12/11/omicron-variant-fuels-covid-misinformation-how-spot-false-claims/6459376001/ 
  1. https://www.thelancet.com/journals/laninf/article/PIIS1473-3099(20)30565-X/fulltext 
The National Public Health Information Coalition

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