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Fighting Misinformation in the Face of COVID-19

June 1, 2020
By: 
Anton Holland
President and CEO
NIVA Inc., www.niva.com

It was pretty clear from the outset of the COVID-19 crisis that one of the main victims of the situation would be clarity. Credible, consistent, and understandable information—the kind needed to guide the actions of citizens in the fight against the coronavirus.

The situation is constantly changing—information about how different populations are being affected, what we know about how the coronavirus behaves, the ways in which it affects different people, what we need to do to keep people safe as they go about their daily business—and this means that messages from experts are continually being revised too. What makes things even more complicated is that all of this information, both good and bad, is coming at us from all angles and inundating our ability to process it, like a tsunami.

The World Health Organization coined the term “infodemic” to describe the situation, where an excessive amount of information concerning a problem like the coronavirus is flooding all forms of media, such that communicating a solution is made more difficult. It’s like trying to drink from a firehose instead of a water fountain. One wrong move, and who knows what you’ll be choking on.

The science changes all the time. That’s what science does and that’s how we find solutions to problems. At no time is there a static list of facts that allow us to communicate immutable guidance on how we should act. As the science evolves, the guidance evolves right along with it. The problem is, there’s a wide swath of the public who may want to trust scientists, but they just don’t understand how science works. To be honest, it’s no wonder the average person is confused.

I should wear a mask because it may help people around me. I shouldn’t wear a mask because it may increase my own risk of infection.

Only people probably infected with the virus should be tested because supplies are limited. Everyone should get tested if we’re going to keep the spread in check.

If you’ve had a mild case of the disease, you’ll probably be immune once you recover since that’s how viruses work. We don’t really know for sure how immunity is conferred to people who have had the coronavirus...

Many people have a difficult time dealing with uncertainty and the way it’s presented. Many more don’t know how probabilities work. Still others are generally receptive to science-based messages, but are confused because the processes behind scientific investigation are a mystery to them. They’ve heard that science is about finding out the truth, but if the science keeps changing, does that mean our foundations for truth are malleable too?

If new information from trusted authorities isn’t put out at a rate and at a volume that keeps up with the evolving nature of the problem, a dangerous and constantly growing void is established. A void that’s filled by misinformation, conspiracy theories, myths, and outright lies.

Day in and day out, scientists, public health officials, and other trusted authorities are talking about the coronavirus, and just about everyone in the news media is talking or writing about it too. Plenty of good, trustworthy information does exist—the facts, to the best of everyone’s knowledge, are out there.

Most people want to believe factual information from reliable sources, material that will help to keep them healthy and safe. But if they encounter that void—the gap that exists between the facts put out by scientists and public officials and the flood of misinformation they are exposed to on social media (and often echoed by those around them), then the door is open for that misinformation to take hold.

There’s a certain type of person that buys into conspiracy theories. People who are often angry, less trusting, and who see connections where none exist. And a lot of them are effective at building narratives that use just enough real information to make their wild stories seem believable at first blush to other people who are less mindful of critical thinking. People who are genuinely trying to fill that information void because they’re scared and don’t know what to do. It gets them thinking: “this could happen, right?” And just like the coronavirus, a conspiracy theory becomes an infection that is hard to get rid of.

A recent study by Carleton University’s School of Journalism and Communication found that 57% of Canadians say they are confident that they can “easily distinguish conspiracy theories and misinformation from factual information about COVID-19.” However, a quarter of the study’s survey respondents believe a widely discredited conspiracy theory that the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 was engineered as a bioweapon in a Chinese lab and released into the general population. A quarter of Canadians also believe the hyped and unproven claim promoted by U.S. President Donald Trump that drugs such as hydroxychloroquine are effective in treating COVID-19 patients.

But what’s really concerning is that among those who believe the bioweapon theory, half are also in the camp that says they have no problem recognizing conspiracy theories. It underscores just how insidious the spread of misinformation and conspiracy theories really is.

Trying to change the mind of a hardcore conspiracy theorist is largely a wasted effort. But there’s a lot to be gained by engaging the people they are trying to infect. Most people want to do the right thing and believe real facts—they just need to be nudged in the right direction. With the right messaging, the general public can be steered towards information that benefits themselves and the rest of us.

Use some empathy to understand their position. That way you’ll build much needed trust. Provide them with facts from independent sources, those that can be verified and are not just based on what one person said to another. Try to get people to use their critical thinking skills whenever they encounter this information. If a person is just sharing misinformation because someone they know sent it to them, or because it sounds believable, those people can just as easily be encouraged to share content that is actually helpful.

But the situation can’t truly be rectified unless public health organizations take a much more direct approach to putting out the right information, at the right time, in ways that ensure the broadest possible audience can understand it. Taking tips from the marketing world isn’t a bad thing either—it might just provide the means to get this done. Public health organizations need to coordinate their messaging, and broadcast it repeatedly, at a high volume, with every tool at their disposal. Drown out the noise. Get ahead of the problem, rather than just reacting to it. One of those important marketing tips? If you don’t write your own narrative, someone else will.

Much of the discussion about misinformation is done from a distance, with many of us commenting on what a terrible state of affairs it has created. But each and every one of us reading these editorials has a responsibility to ensure that bad information is stopped in its tracks.

One of the most popular hashtags of the COVID-19 era is #AllInThisTogether. That doesn’t just hold for flattening the curve—it’s essential for halting the spread of misinformation too.