For centuries, mis- and disinformation have been associated with outbreaks, epidemics, and pandemics. During the past several decades, false claims have challenged health responses and incited conflict, leading to various consequences at local, national, regional, and international levels. Although many of these claims are politically motivated, some are enabled or created by inaccurate and misleading information and statements. Inaccurate information has the potential for creating challenges during public health responses, leading to distrust of scientific information, eliciting questions among security experts about the true origins of outbreaks, and generating false claims. Inaccurate scientific information can be generated unintentionally through publication or poor science communication, or intentionally if specific biases are involved in the generation and release of information. Unlike in prior centuries when information flow to various audiences was limited to journalists and scientists, scientific information, regardless of whether it is peer reviewed or otherwise verified as accurate, can be found on, shared, and spread through numerous internet and social media sites in ways that may be reinforcing to particular views. Given the complexity of mis- and disinformation, many stakeholders and efforts are necessary to prevent and otherwise counter these claims. This National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (the National Academies) study involves one set of stakeholders—scientists (including life, computer, and social scientists)—in helping to address inaccurate and misleading information.
The National Academies evaluated how to enable long-term engagement of scientists, focusing on Southeast Asia, to identify and address claims about biological threats that emerge from or are perpetuated by inaccurate and misleading information. This study addressed four objectives: (1) evaluating existing online platforms and virtual communities for sharing information about and analyzing data from biological events, and approaches for community-based review of scientific materials in this field; (2) exploring key considerations for developing an international community or network of scientists to address the veracity of claims relating to biological threats; (3) incorporating knowledge from social and behavioral science fields in addressing network development and influence, and community-based interactions online; and (4) developing a community engagement strategy for establishing an international network of scientists to evaluate the credibility of reported biological threats. The committee produced the following consensus products: (1) this report, which describes a strategy for developing a trusted network of qualified scientists for countering mis- and disinformation; (2) a how-to guide to help scientists determine whether and how to correct inaccurate information; and (3) online materials that further inform the strategy report.1 Although this study focused on a scientific network primarily in Southeast Asia (per the Statement of Task, Box 1), scientists in other
parts of the world may find that many of the findings, conclusions, and recommendations are relevant to their own networks and contexts.
This report proposes that an effective response to misinformation about infectious disease and other biological threats involves creating a cross-disciplinary, cross-sector, and cross-boundary network of scientists. Working collaboratively, scientists from the life, social, and computer sciences and other relevant disciplines could produce and disseminate accurate scientific information; peer review and correct inaccurate scientific information; and ensure that scientific information is communicated in an unbiased, objective, and culturally informed manner. Based on this conclusion, the committee developed a strategy for engaging scientists:
Recommendation 1: Leaders of established scientific networks in Southeast Asia jointly should create a distributed network of individuals and organizations (i.e., a network of networks) that draws on a diversity of scientific disciplines and sectors needed to correct inaccurate and misleading scientific information about infectious diseases and other biological threats. The network should be regional and have a leadership structure that includes scientists from countries in the regional network. The network itself should be virtual only, leveraging recently developed online collaboration tools, but should be based in a host nation within Southeast Asia to support key operations (e.g., website, email addresses, and resource repositories) and gain credibility by regional and national authorities.
The vision of the network is to create a transparent, trusted, sustainable, long-term network of scientists, both regionally and internationally, who are contacted to address mis- and disinformation on biological threats dynamically and when the need arises. This report highlights strategic objectives toward achieving this vision, including developing a governing structure for the network, training scientists in science communication and addressing mis- and disinformation, building trust among members and external stakeholders, widening the scientific knowledge base and access to data, and serving as a resource for external stakeholders. Furthermore, the report highlights short-term actions that are necessary first steps toward achieving these objectives. These actions include engaging local networks to join the network and work toward enhancing the scientific knowledge base, developing an implementation plan and process for continuous evaluation and improvement of the network, developing trainings and other materials to assist scientists, creating a list of experts from various disciplines, and engaging external stakeholders (i.e., policymakers, journalists, and other members of the public).
Once established, the network will need to examine several factors for addressing mis- and disinformation about infectious disease and other biological threats effectively. These factors include (1) the potential that the information, if spread, would cause harm to societal systems such as public health and national security; (2) the likelihood that the claims can be addressed through
science; (3) the existence of data or scientific evidence to address the claim in an authoritative and defensible manner; and (4) the potential for amplification of the claim rather than its correction. If scientists choose to address the claims, considerations about the spread of information, uncertainty associated with the corrective message, methods and primary audience for communication, and public engagement will determine their overall effectiveness at counteracting inaccuracies that could lead to misinformation. Specific considerations for scientists to determine whether and how to address misinformation and communicate accurate science and uncertainty effectively are detailed in the report. These collective outcomes have been translated into a how-to guide for scientists,2 which includes a decision tree and guiding questions, to determine whether and how to address particular inaccurate information and broader misinformation, and to whom and how to communicate the corrective actions.