The fight of our lives: combating misinformation

A global pandemic in the digital age has been a dangerous cocktail resulting in widespread misinformation. Director, Brigid van Wanrooy examines the information needs arising from the COVID-19 pandemic and how APO’s core purpose meets these needs. 

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A global ‘infodemic’

It seems like a lifetime ago, but take yourself back to the early months of the pandemic – around March 2020 – when everything was so unknown. Probably like a lot of people, I had a thirst for information. So much so, I developed a habit of ‘doom scrolling’. Now in Lockdown No.6 here in Melbourne, I’m pretty battle weary but my thirst for knowledge has been quenched because the research community responded.

Amid so much uncertainty, this thirst for information, for answers, can lead people in lots of different directions and to a range of answers. It was ripe for people, often with hidden agendas, to create a deluge of misinformation. The pandemic – or infodemic – has made two needs clear:

1. The need for rapid access to research

2. The need to fight misinformation. 

These two needs drive APO. Well before the pandemic, APO has championed open access and evidence-informed decision-making. We believe the best way to improve outcomes for society is for the best available research evidence to be integrated into decision-making. And the best way to achieve an evidence-informed society is to make research freely available through open access.

I need answers, now!

With so much uncertainty, the demand for information was intense. While it was great to see the big publishers of academic literature provide free and open access to articles on COVID-19, the academic process of creating new knowledge through peer-reviewed research published in journals is a long one, and couldn’t meet this demand. 

Rapid access to academic literature primarily comes in two forms: preprints and grey literature. 

I was excited when preprints entered the vernacular of mainstream media. While they need to be reported cautiously – preprints don’t go through a peer-review process that improves the quality and rigour of the published piece – it sure beats presenting the latest misinformation from a social media influencer.

APO isn’t in the business of preprints, our speciality is making grey literature openly accessible. So we really came into our own during the pandemic. When it started to hit, we created a new COVID-19 subject term and resources tagged with this term rapidly grew. We now have over 500 resources that focus on this subject – not only accessible on APO but across internet search engines and university libraries (via Informit).

The fight against misinformation

This demand for information has created an environment where misinformation has proliferated, along with a range of ‘anti’s from anti-vaxxers, anti-maskers, and anti-lockdowners. When the spread of misinformation can literally mean life or death, so is the need to fight it. 

To fight misinformation we need to understand how it has come about. The internet has enabled easy access to social media, all kinds of information, and to groups of like-minded people. Not only do these groups of like-minded people create echo chambers – this is further enhanced by algorithms that give people what they want to hear to keep them on a platform.

Personally, we can’t fight these algorithms – and we’re not even sure the Government can – but we can address the access to quality information and research.

To fight the scourge of misinformation, research needs to be accessible for public consumption. And unlike preprints or journal articles which are written for an academic audience, grey literature is produced for public consumption. 

Initiatives like The Conversation and APO, that aim to make academic research more accessible, are absolutely key in the fight against misinformation. 

Does this mean I think journal articles are irrelevant? Absolutely not. Publishing in peer-reviewed journals is essential for building knowledge and the credibility of research and researchers – who also produce grey literature. And you can find this grey literature from reputable researchers and organisations openly accessible on APO.