Information Sharing During Public Health Emergencies

by Brian W. Langloss | Apr 01, 2020

Misinformation has spread online during the coronavirus outbreak

Misinformation has spread online during the coronavirus outbreak. 


Both government censorship and the open internet have helped the spread of the virus. For instance, China directed doctors to not share information in the early days of the outbreak in Wuhan, hindering initial response efforts. Meanwhile, misinformation has spread online that downplays the impact of the virus or offers fake cures, giving the general public a false sense of their own risks. International health authorities have developed policies and best practices for tracking and sharing information about novel diseases as they emerge; however, censorship and misinformation made it more difficult to contain the virus that causes COVID-19 early.

The current pandemic offers important lessons about the need for accurate and timely information. At the Center on Science & Technology Policy at Duke University, we looked at how the lack of official information and the prevalence of false information has impacted the response to this health emergency. In our policy brief, we offer a number of recommendations for how governmental organizations and tech companies can better respond to both this and future health emergencies. 

One way governmental agencies can improve is  to have better preparation to combat misinformation online. Over the last few weeks, new partnerships have formed between tech companies and governmental agencies to promote accurate information, such as Facebook offering free ad space to public health organizations. Moving forward, these partnerships should be maintained and expanded so that governments can quickly disseminate information at the onset of a health emergency rather than weeks later. As these information sharing partnerships are developed, public health agencies should also develop social media-friendly templates for sharing information, producing public service announcements, and combating misinformation.

Another area for improvement is digital epidemiology, the use of online information to identify and track diseases. Programs like HealthMap and BlueDot have demonstrated the ability to identify outbreaks in their earliest stages by analyzing publicly available information, such as social media posts and news reports. The utility of such digital epidemiology projects could be greatly increased through access to the large data sets held by tech companies; however, sharing this data comes with a number of concerns over individual privacy and data security. Governments and tech companies should work together to develop and implement a framework for sharing this data that addresses data security and privacy concerns.

We cover these and other recommendations in detail in our policy brief. Improving the policies and best practices around information sharing can help improve the response to this and future public health emergencies. As the Center on Science & Technology Policy continues to understand and explore these issues, we are happy to connect and work with others to ensure the best outcomes possible.

Brian W. Langloss is a lead policy analyst for, overseeing the development and publication of SciPol content related to health and data security topics. 

comments powered by Disqus

Blog Categories