'Infodemic' antidote

Once again we are learning the power of truth. The shrinking globe and the information society are truisms. Yet the interactive effects of increased mobility and the network as global integrating agent are rarely revealed with clarity.

Former Commerce Department official David Rothkopf recently highlighted one clarifying moment: the effects of the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) epidemic on international business and tourism.

The effects stem not from the SARS virus, but from the associated "information epidemic," or "infodemic," in which, as Rothkopf said, "a few facts, mixed with fear, speculation and rumor, amplified and relayed swiftly worldwide by modern information technologies, have affected national and international economies, politics and even security in ways that are utterly disproportionate with the root realities." SARS has caused fewer than 1,000 deaths, but will cost billions of dollars.

Infodemics are not new. For centuries, public panics — chain reactions of falling confidence — have crashed markets.

But two things are new in today's infodemics: the speed with which the "disease" spreads and the number of people who can be "infected." These changes create a multiplier that enables small amounts of information to wreak large-scale havoc before the antidote — real facts placed in context — can make its way into the public mind.

The government often ends up managing consequences when large-scale events happen, so it must be ready to minimize them. Five principles can help governments manage future infodemics.

First, quarantine is not an option. As the early Internet adage had it, "Information wants to be free." It's impossible to stop the movement of information, as even the Chinese are discovering.

Second, be prepared. Model the spread of information, test it in scenarios. Create and deploy likely responses in advance, and be ready to tweak them.

Third, use public networks to your advantage. The Internet community will debunk pretty much anything, if it has the facts. The Web can be a powerful ally in reducing fear and promoting reason, but only if the facts are available from credible and trusted sources.

Fourth, respond promptly to all inquiries. Even if all the facts aren't in, being readily accessible helps ensure that rumors and speculation are balanced by analysis. Reporters are going to print someone's response; it's better if it's yours.

Finally, build trust through transparency. As Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes observed in another context, "Sunshine is the best disinfectant." Infodemics thrive on misinformation. Only if the government is perceived as a trusted, open information source will it stay on top of the threat.

McConnell, former chief of information policy and technology at the Office of Management and Budget, is president of McConnell International LLC (www.mcconnellinternational.com).

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