The confluence of misinformation and infectious disease isn’t unique to COVID-19. Misinformation contributed to the spread of the Ebola epidemic in West Africa, and it plagues efforts to educate the public on the importance of vaccinating against measles. But when it comes to COVID-19, the pandemic has come to be defined by a tsunami of persistent misinformation to the public on everything from the utility of masks and the efficacy of school closures, to the wisdom behind social distancing, and even the promise of untested remedies. According to a study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, areas of the country exposed to television programming that downplayed the severity of the pandemic saw greater numbers of cases and deaths—because people didn’t follow public health precautions.
In the United States, misinformation spread by elements of the media, by public leaders and by individuals with large social media platforms has contributed to a disproportionately large share of COVID-19 burden: we house 4 percent of the global population but account for 22 percent of global COVID-19 deaths. With winter around the corner and people spending more time indoors, it is more imperative than ever that we counter misinformation and clearly communicate risks to the public; in addition, as we await the arrival of a vaccine, it is equally important to arm the public with facts. We have work to do: a recent poll found that just half of the American public plans to get a COVID-19 vaccine.
Below are some key recommendations for the science community, public health professionals, members of the public, and industry on what they can do to effectively blunt the effect of misinformation surrounding the COVID-19 response.
A coordinated campaign of influencers supporting science and public health. A study of COVID-19 messaging on social media revealed misinformation from politicians, celebrities and other prominent figures made up about 20 percent of claims but accounted for 69 percent of total social media engagement. Therefore, public health figures who have credibility must partner with social media influencers who have the reach. Harnessing the wide reach of local, regional and national influencers from a wide swath of sectors both within and outside of the public health community is necessary to counter the large volume of misinformation thrust into the information ecosystem. A coordinated campaign of influencers that combines subject matter experts with entertainers, political figures, businesspeople and civil society sectors will help to amplify consistent public health guidance across social media, digital and traditional media outlets.
An aggressive and transparent effort by social media companies working in cooperation with governments to remove markedly false information regarding COVID-19. The single largest category of misleading or false claims (39 percent) are mischaracterizations or misleading messages about actions or policies of public authorities. Although social media companies are increasing their efforts to remove misinformation regarding COVID-19 from their platforms, their efforts are largely reactive and delayed, during which damaging information circulates among unwitting viewers. That’s why public health officials must work with social media companies through robust partnerships in order to identify common sources of misinformation; proactively anticipate future misinformation from those sources; and enable its removal in a near real-time fashion. To be credible, this process must be robust, transparent and nonpartisan.
Beyond debunking and removal of false information: a robust public messaging campaign that goes further than the government’s traditional one-way message. Social media is popular because it provides individuals, groups and institutions the opportunity to have dynamic conversations. However, public health messages from officials typically need to be cleared through a lengthy review process that does not allow officials to converse in real time with audiences in order to educate and debunk misinformation. To be more effective, public health officials should develop standards and guidance that allows them to dynamically interact with the public in a more timely fashion. Dynamic conversations and proactive messaging between public health officials and the public can be more impactful than removing false information from social media platforms, especially since removal typically occurs long after a significant number of individuals have already been exposed to the false message. A more promising approach is for public health officials and science- and health-based institutions to provide the public with a steady stream of facts.
Detect, understand and expose COVID-19-related misinformation through data science and behavioral analytics. Any effort aimed at conveying facts to large audiences requires harnessing and understanding audience data. This is what makes the advertisement industry so powerful. Unfortunately, our public health communicators have not adopted basic capabilities to which industry is accustomed. These capabilities include understanding the preferences of various sectors of the public active on social media platforms so as to deliver timely and salient information that resonate with them. These are capabilities routinely used by the ad industry, and they would serve the public health sector well in its effort to better understand audiences and in order to persuade them in favor of preferred behaviors.
Match public health promises with the capabilities of a government that can deliver Lessons from past public health mass media campaigns indicate that any advice from public health officials must be matched with the ability to deliver services to those audiences. For example, guidance for testing must be accompanied by readily accessible COVID-19 tests. Guidance for wearing masks must be met with ample availability of masks. And any education campaign on the efficacy of vaccines or therapeutics must be met with a sufficient availability and affordability of those measures.
Effectively countering the misinformation infodemic surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic will play a significant role in flattening the curve and ultimately defeating the virus. Lessons from communicable diseases highlight the fact that aggressive public health communications strategies are imperative in curbing disease. In the age of social media, the spread of misinformation provides a major hindrance to those efforts and requires an even more sophisticated response. The execution of the recommendations detailed above will help to effectively counter misinformation surrounding the current pandemic and help to protect us from the next one.