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Smart solutions for good health

Disease prevention is one of the world's biggest challenges, but multidisciplinary research taking place at Northumbria University is finding innovative, sustainable and effective ways of promoting health and wellbeing across the world.

One example has seen researchers explore the implications of the spread of 'fake news' via mobile phone messaging apps during disease outbreaks:

Digital Disease Prevention

Fake news and sharing inaccurate information via social media has been hitting the headlines in recent times; especially the impact it is having on people during elections and a major referendum like Brexit.

However, the knock-on effects of sharing potential misinformation on social platforms during a serious disease outbreak, is less widely known. Northumbria University is leading new research into how older adults respond to inaccurate information about infectious disease outbreaks received via messaging app, WhatsApp.

Social media channels enable fake news and misinformation to spread quickly through communities and Dr Santosh Vijaykumar from Northumbria’s Department of Psychology recognises the massive threat posed by this, as it impacts the ability of public health agencies to effectively manage infectious disease outbreaks.

“My specific interest in WhatsApp really emerges from how consistently it has been used as a catalyst to spread misinformation related to infectious diseases,” Dr Vijaykumar explains. “This is a serious problem especially in Brazil and India, two countries which are at high risk of infectious disease outbreaks, which are also among WhatsApp’s biggest markets.

“One of the most recent cases was that of the Nipah Virus outbreak in India, where a lot of misinformation spreading via WhatsApp posed enormous challenges to public health officials trying to manage the situation.  Messages were circulating among communities suggesting that the outbreak was a corporate conspiracy, and that the flesh of chicken was a fertile host for the virus. These messages meant that people were reluctant to work with public health teams, putting their own health at risk.”

More than 1.5 billion people in over 180 countries use WhatsApp to stay in touch with their friends and family. The service is free to use and allows people to share messages, photos and videos with chosen individuals or groups.

Dr Vijaykumar says: “WhatsApp is very popular among older adults in India and previous psychology research has found that the misinformation effect is more pronounced in older adults as opposed to those in younger age groups. This means that older adults are especially vulnerable to believing information that they are presented with.”

In response to this threat posed by misinformation, WhatsApp – which is owned by Facebook – created the WhatsApp Research Awards for Social Science and Misinformation. These awards provide funding for researchers to examine the implications of misinformation spreading on its platform and identify potential solutions to address this problem.

Dr Vijaykumar has been awarded US$50,000 and is bringing together an international team of researchers from the Universities of Edinburgh and Georgia, the Health Systems Research India Initiative and Srishti School of Art, Design and Technology to work on this project.

Research will begin in January 2019 and is expected to report its preliminary findings to WhatsApp in May 2019.

Dr Vijaykumar is a member of Northumbria’s multi-disciplinary team of academics researching digital living. The team comprises experts from psychology, computing, architecture, design, business and engineering who are looking at the ways that digital technologies can revolutionise our lives and cities.


A version of this article originally appeared in the Northumbria University supplement produced with Times Higher Education.


Digital Living

Find out more about the research taking place as part of our Digital Living multidisciplinary research theme

Integrated Health and Social Care

Researchers within our Integrated Health multidisciplinary research theme are tackling global challenges around sedentarism, malnutrition, poverty and social justice. 

Dr. Santosh Vijaykumar

Vice-Chancellor’s Senior Research Fellow within Northumbria's Department of Psychology

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