Adapted from Dr Travis Noakes’ Twitter thread
Who is watching the World Health Organization? ‘Post-truth’ moments beyond infodemic research, an opinion piece by Dr Travis Noakes, Dr David Bell and Prof. Tim Noakes, raises several constructive criticisms of the World Health Organization’s infodemic research agenda.
“The World Health Organization (WHO) has established a public research agenda to address infodemics. In these, ‘an overflow of information of varying quality surges across digital and physical environments’. The WHO’s expert panel has raised concerns that this can result in negative health behaviours and erosion of trust in health authorities and public health responses. In sponsoring this agenda, the WHO positioned itself as a custodian that can flag illegitimate narratives (misinformation), the spread of which can potentially result in societal harm. Such ‘post-truth’ moments are rife within the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) public health emergency response. It provides an opportunity for researchers to analyse divisions in knowledge labour, which can help explain when ‘post-truth’ moments arrive …”
A major concern is that this agenda lacks earnest discussion on where health authorities’ own choices and guidelines contribute to ‘misinformation’, ‘disinformation’ and even ‘malinformation’. Rushed guidance based on weak evidence from international health organisations can perpetuate rather than ameliorate negative health and other societal outcomes. Furthermore, if health authorities’ choices are not up for review, there is a danger that a hidden goal of WHO’s infodemic research (or related disinfodemic funders’ infodemiology research), could be to direct attention away from the multiple failures of authorities in fighting pandemics with inappropriate measures.
In a recent paper, The regime of ‘post-truth’: COVID-19 and the politics of knowledge, Kwok and colleagues describe how the global health crisis of Covid-19 presents fertile ground for exploring the complex division of knowledge labour in a ‘post-truth’ era. They illustrate this by describing Covid-19 knowledge production at a university.
Our paper focuses on the relationships between health communication, public health policy, and recommended medical interventions. We address divisions of knowledge labour for: (1) the infodemic/disinfodemic research agenda; (2) mRNA vaccine research; and (3) personal health responsibility. We argue for exploring intra- and interrelationships between influential knowledge development fields, in particular, the vaccine manufacturing pharmaceutical companies that drive and promote mRNA knowledge production.
Within the three divisions of knowledge labour listed above, we identify key inter-group contradictions between the interests of agencies and their contrasting goals. It is useful to consider such conflicts in relation to potential gaps in WHO’s infodemic research agenda:
- The infodemic/disinfodemic research agenda: A key contradiction is that infodemic scholars who benefit from health authority funding may face difficulties questioning their ‘scientific’ guidance. We flag how WHO’s advice for managing Covid-19 departed markedly from a 2019 review of evidence they themselves had commissioned.
- mRNA vaccine research: This division features very different contradictions. Notably, the pivotal role that pharmaceutical companies play in generating vaccine discourse is massively conflicted. Conflict arises in pursuing costly research on mRNA vaccines because whether the company producing these therapies will ultimately benefit financially from the future sales of these therapies depends on published efficacy and safety results from their own research.
Knowledge labour for mRNA vaccine development should not be considered separately from that of Covid-19 in Higher Education or the infodemic research agenda. Multinational pharmaceutical companies direct the research agenda in academia as well as medical research discourse via the lucrative grants they distribute. Research organisations that depend on external funding to cover budget shortfalls will be more susceptible to the influence of these funders.
- Personal responsibility for health: We spotlight overwhelming evidence for the importance of personal responsibility. During the Covid-19 pandemic, this discourse seemed largely ignored by Higher Education and government. Contradictions in this division of knowledge labour in a pandemic explain such neglect.
Personal responsibility is not a commercial enterprise that generates large profits, some of which may be donated to Higher Education research. Research into effective, low-cost interventions seems to be at odds with the economic interests of both grant recipients and Big Pharma donors. Replacing costly treatments with low-cost alternatives would not only greatly diminish the profitability of existing funders, but also reduce the pool of new ones, plus the size of future donations.
It is important to reflect on how else the scientific enterprise in Higher Education lends itself to being an arena for misinformation. New information in Science that refutes the existing dogma is not accepted immediately. Therefore a period exists during which new ideas will be considered ‘misinformation’, especially by those with an agenda to suppress their acceptance.
Thus, from the perspective of orthodoxy, views that support new paradigms represent unverified knowledge, and potentially ‘misinformation’. Any international health organisation that wishes to be an evaluator must have the scientific expertise to manage this ongoing ‘paradox’, or irresolvable contradiction. Organisations such as WHO may theoretically be able to convene such knowledge, but their dependency on funding from conflicted parties would normally render them ineligible to perform such a task.
This paper alerts researchers to a broad range of ‘post-truth’ moments, and flags the danger of relying on global health authorities to be the sole custodians of who is allowed to define what comprises an information disorder. This is particularly salient where powerful agents can collaborate across divisions of knowledge labour for the purpose of establishing an institutional oligarchy. Such hegemonic collaboration can suppress alternative viewpoints that contest and query the interests of powerful agents.
It is concerning how many Media Studies researchers ignore such potential abuses of power, while supporting the censorship of dissenters based on unproven ‘harms’. Embedded researchers seem to ignore the fact that endorsements of products of multinational pharmaceutical companies by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), National Institutes of Health (NIH) and WHO is a particularly troubling development. It marks a ‘new normal’ of institutional capture by industry, sponsoring regulators who become their ‘lobbyists’. This is in contrast with the silo efforts of external influence in the past; for example, by lobbyists working for Big Tobacco or Big Food who spun embedded scientific research touting the ‘benefits’ of smoking and processed foods. At the same time, evidence of harm was attacked as ‘junk science’.
At least with cigarettes and ultra-processed foods, many individuals have the choice to buy or avoid paying for these products. In stark contrast, the tax-paying public has no option to avoid the steep costs of mRNA vaccines. Public taxes pay for these treatments, while less expensive and potentially more effective interventions are ignored or suppressed. Paying for vaccines takes funding away from interventions that would address wider and more pressing global health needs, in particular, poverty, malaria, tuberculosis and type two diabetes mellitus.
In summary, challenges to the scientific propaganda of authorities who are captured by industry should not automatically be (mis-)characterised as low quality or harmful information. Rather, the digital voices of responsible dissenters can be valuable in protecting scientific integrity and public health and should not be censored, as has been the case with both Prof. Noakes and Nick Hudson.