In March 2020, Secretary General of the United Nations Antonio Guterres tweeted, “Our common enemy is #COVID19, but our enemy is also an ‘infodemic’ of misinformation.” And today, in communities across the country, the infodemic rages on along with COVID-19. In this post, I want to look at how disinformation affects the public and offer some guidelines on how we can help be a positive voice to promote facts and scientific understanding to help foster a stronger public health response.
Today, disinformation and misinformation are spreading quickly and have divided the public about the reality of any data presented regarding COVID19. The study of disinformation has gained considerable attention in today’s social media climate because of the ease with which disinformation can be spread through social media channels. As the Pew Research Center notes, “those who rely on social media for news are less likely to get the facts right about the coronavirus…and more likely to hear some unproven claims.” However, disinformation has a long history and has often been a key strategy for those attempting to divide public opinion. Here is a brief look into how disinformation spreads.
1) Disinformation relies on an emotional response.
Disinformation evokes an emotional appeal that makes you want to share, like, and ultimately accept the message. When it comes to COVID-19, most disinformation targets the anger, frustration, and fear that Americans are feeling and experiencing. We want to justify these feelings and take actions that allow us to direct those emotions toward something tangible. We can’t take our frustrations out on the virus for turning our lives upside down, but we can take them out on government, businesses, and individuals who are implementing policies that are preventing us from enjoying our previously normal lives. So, people fight mask mandates, social distancing guidelines, and policies to help fight the spread of the disease. And any information that debunks the threat of COVID-19 is easily accepted because it provides justification that we can get “back to normal.”
2) Disinformation relies on a grain of truth coupled with uncertainty.
Disinformation, in order to be accepted, must draw on some element of facts to be believed. More importantly, there must be uncertainty and conflict about what is true in order to gain traction. Take for example the issue of wearing masks. Initially, the CDC said we did not need to wear masks because they believed the virus primarily spread through surface contact and could not remain aerosolized long enough to spread through the air. Later research showed that to be inaccurate, and we now know that wearing a mask is a strong protective measure. Disinformation tactics seize upon the truth that CDC guidelines have changed but use it to suggest that all information from the CDC cannot be trusted.
3) Disinformation relies on a “credible” source.
People don’t just accept disinformation from anyone. The source must appear credible. Typically, disinformation comes from a “news” site, an individual posing as an expert or from someone in a position of power and authority. This may even be the age-old “a friend of mine who is an epidemiologist said…” Ultimately, disinformation spreads quickly when it is amplified with credibility in the mind of the public.
So, how do we help combat disinformation?
First, we need to be a trusted source in the mind of the public. Everything we do is dependent on the trust and credibility we have built with our council and community so they are inclined to believe us when we talk. This doesn't happen overnight--it was true pre-COVID-19 and is especially critical, if more difficult, during these charged times. It means listening to their needs, addressing their concerns, and acknowledging the changing nature of the situation. As a government organization, the public is going to be skeptical of our views. They are going to see us as political. Yet, the value of having a professional manager is that we rise above the political discourse. We must speak from a nonpartisan stance so that our message is heard as a nonbiased expert on the matter.
Second, we must carefully correct inaccurate information. When others spread misinformation or disinformation, we must confront it. We should point out the grain of truth that gives rise to the disinformation while then identifying the truth as we understand it. For example, a common disinformation message getting traction is that COVID-19 is being exaggerated in order to suppress voter turnout. A possible response to this claim may be, “While it is true that COVID-19 creates considerable challenges in the midst of the presidential election, we are experiencing hospitalizations and deaths in our community from COVID-19, and we hope these measures will help to reduce the spread and also make the public feel safe to vote.” In this way, we acknowledge that truth of the disinformation – that COVID-19 is interfering with the election – yet, we also address the falsehood that it is being exaggerated as we address the real impacts on people’s lives and explain what the intended outcomes of the policies are from our perspective.
Of course, I am not so naïve as to think everyone will just change their mind, sing kumbaya, and accept the policies put in place if we follow this practice. However, the goal is to be a trusted source that can combat disinformation. And to that end, when others see a rational, empathetic, and reasoned contradiction to disinformation, they are less likely to share, retweet, or spread the message. And if we can help slow the spread of disinformation, we may ultimately be able to slow the spread of COVID-19 as well.