Adding value during the COVID-19 ‘infodemic’

Actuaries are experts in assessing the impact of tomorrow’s uncertain events, and the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted just how uncertain tomorrow is. However, expertise is not always enough. It is also important to effectively communicate with the intended audience. In an ‘infodemic’ of misinformation, decision makers and the general public crave objective truth. Actuaries, as technical experts who are also members of a respected professional body, are in a unique position to provide this.

Misinformation and the media

A recently coined term during the COVID-19 pandemic is ‘infodemic’, associating the pervasiveness and implications of misinformation with that of a virus. An infodemic of misinformation is especially dangerous during a crisis such as COVID-19, as it becomes increasingly difficult to learn essential health information when confusion and fear invade the news space[1]. Pandemic misinformation has been relentlessly promoted online, with social media algorithms designed to promote the most inflammatory content to keep people engaged, and generating advertising revenue, for longer. As a result, users are siphoned into pockets of the internet where others think and post similarly to them.

More than half of all Australians used social media as their source of news content in 2020, according to the Digital News Report: Australia 2020[2], published by the University of Canberra. People are aware that misinformation exists on social media, as the DNR research also found that almost two-thirds of Australians (64%) say they are concerned about what is real and what is fake online. This raises the issue of how businesses, governments and individuals can find a solution for this infodemic. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the concept of ‘flattening the curve’ has become a well-known strategy to slow the spread of the virus. A similar mitigation strategy can be applied for the infodemic, by following these WHO guidelines[3]:

  1. Assess the source.
  2. Go beyond the headlines.
  3. Identify the author.
  4. Check the date.
  5. Examine the supporting evidence.
  6. Check your biases.
  7. Turn to fact-checkers.

Just as communities work to suppress COVID-19 with hand washing, use of face masks and physical distancing, the spread of misinformation and fake news can be slowed by keeping these seven guidelines front-of-mind while consuming information.

The value of professional credibility

Two steps recommended in the WHO guidelines to slow the spread of misinformation, are to assess the source and identify the author. Actuaries are in a unique position, as technical experts who are also members of a respected professional body that brings with it a high level of credibility.

Part of this credibility is derived from the standards and requirements which members are bound to follow. The Actuaries Institute Code of Conduct[4] sets out six principles that cover the values and standards of behaviour expected of all members. These principles are integrity, compliance, competence and care, objectivity, speaking up, and communication. If someone reads a report or article published by a member of the Actuaries Institute, they can trust their work to abide by this Code. Having this credibility associated with an author or speakers name is a valuable advantage, particularly in an era rife with misinformation.

The importance of effective communication

To take full advantage of the platform of professional credibility that actuaries are afforded, effective communication is critical.

Being an effective communicator is a learned skilled that can constantly be improved on. The Actuaries Institute Australia lists Communication as a key principle in their Code of Conduct, and if all actuaries commit to focusing on this principle, the profession can be known for its technical experts who communicate complex ideas in knowledge-appropriate and engaging terms. The Actuary Education program subject, ‘Communication, Modelling and Professionalism’[5], includes modules on effective communication, writing, and presentation skills. The aim of the subject is to ensure all qualified actuaries have the skills required to effectively communicate to, and with, a range of audiences. The subject teaches the following steps for crafting any piece of communication[6]:

In particular;

  • Know who the audience will be, so that their perspectives and knowledgebase can be considered. A lack of expressing information in a knowledge-appropriate manner, especially as a technical expert, can result in confusion and misunderstanding.
  • For content, including visual aids is a highly valuable, and often under-employed, tool. A 1997 research article published by the National Academy of Sciences[7], examined the neural correlates of memory for pictures and words, and found that humans have a remarkable ability to remember pictures consistently exceeding our ability to remember words.

Conclusion

Effective communication, coupled with a platform of professional credibility, allows actuaries to add value through their technical expertise and strong problem-solving skills. The actuarial profession has the capability to advise across many important areas and having the skill to communicate knowledge effectively is vital to inform and influence others. With almost two-thirds of Australians expressing concern about what is real and what is fake online, a good reputation as a credible source is advantageous. However, this advantage will only continue to exist if actuaries live up to the reputation they are afforded, demonstrating high standards of integrity, compliance, competence and care, objectivity, speaking up, and communication. The vision for tomorrow is that actuarial thought and expertise will be a respite of clarity and knowledge in the deluge of misinformation.

References

[1] Wake, A. (2020, March 30). Doom surfing and fact checkers prosper in Covid-19 infodemic. The Interpreter, Lowy Institute.

[2] Park, S., Fisher, C., Lee, J. Y., McGuinness, K., Sang, Y., O’Neil, M., . . . Fuller, G. (2020, June 16). Digital news report: Australia 2020. News and Media Research Centre (UC).

[3] World Health Organisation. (n.d.). Let’s flatten the infodemic curve. Retrieved February 21, 2021, from World Health Organisation: https://www.who.int/news-room/spotlight/let-s-flatten-the-infodemic-curve

[4] Actuaries Institute Australia. (2020). Code of Conduct. The Institute of Actuaries of Australia. Retrieved from https://actuaries.asn.au/Library/Council/2020/CCMar2020.pdf

[5] Education Program Actuaries Institute. (2019). Communication, Modelling and Professionalism. The Institute of Actuaries of Australia.

[6] Nutshell Brainery. (2017, February 21). Know Your Purpose in Communicating. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=npHwTQ4iJWU

[7] Grady, C. L., McIntosh, A. R., Rajah, M. N., & Craik, F. I. (1998, March 3). Neural correlates of the episodic encoding of pictures and words. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2703-2708.

 

This article is a summary of Georgia Knowles’ submission to the 2021 Young Actuaries’ Public Policy Essay Competition.

CPD: Actuaries Institute Members can claim two CPD points for every hour of reading articles on Actuaries Digital.

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