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Tackling the digital threat to health and wellbeing

The digital information environment can both help and erode our health and wellbeing. People in government have a responsibility to make sure we are safe from false information that is harming us, and we have good frameworks to do so, says Jess Berentson-Shaw

I love the information environment we are living in. I love that if I don't know the answer to something I can, within seconds, find not just the answer, but an entire body of knowledge that has informed that answer. I love that my kids are far more knowledgeable about the natural world, science and how things work than I ever was at their age, because they are not limited to whatever the 10-year old Encyclopedia Britannica contains.

To say the information environment has changed in unimaginable ways in my career as a researcher would be an understatement. Yet with these amazing advances in information and the democratisation of the access to information has come significant harm, and it is way past time for people in government to look at our information environment as not just a place in which people communicate, but as a determinant of our health and wellbeing.

Good health is made upstream of hospitals and doctors offices
Health and wellbeing, whether that be physical, mental, spiritual, community or whānau, is not in the main created in our hospitals and GPs'  offices.

These are the places we usually go when our health has been eroded.

The places where good health is created are far upstream of hospitals and doctors offices. 

Health is built in our homes for example. A warm, dry, stable home is critical to a child's good health and parents' mental wellbeing. To be able to live in one place during their school years can make a huge difference to a child's education, and to a parent's ability to have a stable income.

Health and wellbeing is also built in our workplaces. A workplace that supports good relationships between staff, and keeps us physically and mentally well while doing our job, is a tangible source of wellbeing in our lives.

Our neighbourhoods build our health too. If we can walk lots of places, or ride a bike, get access to green spaces and the outdoors, and have limited exposure to air pollution from cars, trucks and other transport we are much more likely to be healthy and well. If our school is a place where we feel supported for who we are and if teachers believe in us, we thrive in education and learning and can reach our goals in life. If our water is clean, our climate is stable, our rivers and marine environments full of healthy kai moana that too is a source of our health and wellbeing.

While our information environment may be a bit harder to see than many of these other settings I have just outlined, it is, in 2020 a fundamental determinant of our health and wellbeing.

As people are being exposed to false information, some designed maliciously, some spread without ill intent, on a daily basis, notably through digital media (but not solely), we are seeing the real impact of people’s wellbeing.

False information is a danger to our health and wellbeing
As false information including about health, (e.g Covid-19, vaccination) about science (e.g climate change) and people (e.g about Māori, muslim, non-white people) is created and spread by people on digital media further faster and deeper than traditional media has ever been able to do, our health, wellbeing and for some our lives are at risk.

Fifty-one people were killed in Christchurch on March 15th, in part because vile ideas about the supremacy of white culture are being laundered into our mainstream information environment, spread and easily accessed, and used to shore up extreme and false beliefs.

Research shows that many people do in fact attempt to interrogate the accuracy of information they hear. But they do this using biased search terms, unaware of how the algorithms built by digital media companies allow the laundering of alarming, false, and harmful information into the mainstream by bad faith actors. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

Recently, we saw people choosing to ignore public health advice about how to prevent the spread of Covid-19. Particular communities, notably those who have good reason to mistrust government as a source of information, are being exposed to false information on a scale that is constraining good decision-making.

Already the pre-existing false information about vaccination is being bolstered during this pandemic and will be something that needs to be actively overcome when a vaccination is eventually found.

Yet research is clear that people with power and resources can build systems and structures that ensure good information has the upper hand and people are protected from false information.

Protecting good information is part of a government's responsibility to its citizens to create equitable outcomes
People in governments can do what no other institution can do for us, not businesses or families or ourselves as individuals. Government actions can ensure that all of us no matter where we live, how much we earn, who we are, have the opportunity to thrive. They can shape and influence the type of society we live in, be the source of good health and wellbeing.

People in government have a unique responsibility and opportunity to ensure they are building and shaping an environment in which the balance of information all its citizens are exposed to is tilted away from false and towards good information.

Indigenous scholar Tina Ngata reminds us that it is the right of Māori under te Tiriti o Waitangi to have good information provided by our government in ways that work for Māori communities. For Māori to be protected from further harms to their health and wellbeing that come with false information about for example Covid-19, or vaccination.

What needs to be done?
First up, put a health and wellbeing lens on the information environment. Policy makers need to start seeing the information environment as a core determinant of our health and wellbeing. Like air quality, water quality, information quality needs to be set, monitored and evidence-based interventions developed to build and maintain it.

Next, people in government need to move beyond instructing people to read good information, “trust” experts, or worse lambasting them for not using their ‘intellect”. Individualistic approaches, for example a focus on improving people’s ”health literacy”, is simply not going to work, as well as failing to recognize where the agency and power for effective interventions lie.  

Individual behavioural strategies (if it is a strategy at all) lacks the sort of heft that effective multi-leveled policy making requires. Policy making resources need to be directed to developing a depth of understanding in government of how people process and analyse information, how our information environment has evolved to serve false and alarming information up to people first, when they do seek to enquire, and in what settings interventions must happen first.

Research by Francesca Tripodi shows that many people do in fact attempt to interrogate the accuracy of information they hear. But they do this on the internet (the primary setting for information gathering now), using biased search terms, completely unaware of how algorithms have been built by digital media companies to launder alarming, false, and harmful information into the mainstream, information that has been created by bad faith actors.

Third, policy makers can apply knowledge from public health to making good information the default. The Ottawa Charter of Health Promotion for example, provides an excellent framework for how to build people’s health and wellbeing.

Consider the work that was done to prevent tobacco companies from exposing young people and non-smoking citizens to the harms of tobacco smoke:

- healthy public policy was prioritised - tobacco was taxed, advertising and sponsorship banned, and smoking banned in planes, in workplaces etc;
-  environments supportive of non-smoking were created and many of the places we live, work and play, come together as whanau and hapu became smokefree, and tobacco packaging was not allowed to look like confectionery anymore;
- community action and empowerment measures, with resources put into communities so they themselves would set priorities and decide actions, and community-based tobacco control programmes funded (more should be done here for Māori);
- the provision of skills and education to overcome smoking, including quitting programmes;
- the reorientation of government funding and services, with health care services expanding their work to include the prevention of smoking and promotion of good health (as opposed to just treatment of smoking related harm) and guidelines to ensure every time a person sees a healthcare provider they are asked if they would like support to stop or reduce smoking.

Already it is possible to see how this framework, and our experience with tobacco control, could be applied to helping overcome the harms from our information environment. There is I think a real place for government support of traditional media as a source of good information in this framework, especially Māori and Pacific media.

I don’t ever want to go back to the dreadful pages of the Encyclopedia Britannica. There is much about our current information environment that should be celebrated and that can help build our wellbeing. It does need people with the power to support the wellbeing of all citizens to act at the right place and in the right way, to keep us free from the harm people in the digital media industry are exposing us all to.

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