A storm of anti-science is powering the latest wave of COVID-19 crashing against the world’s shores. It is largely invisible, fed by algorithms and clickbait in alliance with isolation, fear and mistrust. And governments and world bodies have shown a woeful inability to modernize their tactics to effectively fight back.
Recent studies have shown that people who get their news primarily from social media are likely to have significant and dangerous misperceptions about COVID-19 – even those who are literate in science. False information outperforms truth on social media platforms, traveling more broadly, cascading more deeply and diffusing further across channels.
The global distrust of science, whether around climate change or masks, is led predominantly by savvy people who have identified how to manipulate emotions and weaponize technology, such as Facebook’s algorithm, to amplify misinformation.
Unfortunately, messaging by governments and health agencies has missed the mark in engaging the public and, importantly, gaining our trust. It’s not just that the messaging tends to be dry and technical but that the guidelines themselves miss the context and realities faced by most people.
One-way communication and top-down decision-making won’t work for the long run. We need an approach more akin to patient-centred care, with elements of precision medicine, in which patients help to create tailored treatment plans they can stick with. Here’s how:
- We must communicate differently. Instead of using traditional platforms (news media, government websites), we need to understand the power and influence of social media and use it effectively to give and receive information. Instead of lengthy, jargon-filled reports, we need data and information assimilated in easy-to-understand infographic packages designed specifically for social media. Messaging must be clear, concise and consistent but packaged specifically for each audience and community.
- Partner with communities. Instead of delivering messages from the same top-line government officials, we should engage with local community organizations, especially community health organizations working with people directly. Consult with them to understand the challenges faced by their communities in complying with protocols. Leverage the trust they have built over decades to gain public buy-in. Enlist social media influencers and celebrities with massive followings. We have seen fear-based Jenny McCarthy’s impact. Let’s do more with celebrities like Kristin Bell and Paul Rudd and Canada’s own Ryan Reynolds, who have shown they can draw large audiences for their science-based messages.
- Partner with relatable people to deliver messages. Put names and faces to them rather than just the names of health bodies. For example, we have seen powerful and impactful campaigns led by mothers on topics such an influenza and safe sleep. And leverage the enormous trust Canadians, an astounding 98 per cent of us according to a 2016 IPSOS survey, have in their family doctors.
- Use the same technologies used by tech companies to target and respond to misinformation quickly. Just as importantly, use the wealth of available data to tailor messages that support communities in responding to the pandemic. For example, drilling down to an outbreak in one neighbourhood may reveal infections related to public transportation. In communities where people – often our essential workers – use public transit to get to work, increase its availability to allow physical distancing and safer travels. The better we can understand communities’ experiences and offer solutions tailored to their challenges, the more trust public health leaders will build.
Understanding community challenges at a micro level will involve the whole of society and will necessitate power sharing. Universities, foundations, businesses large and small and even neighborhood social media leaders must see themselves as major players in combatting disinformation. Governments can’t do it alone and their attempts to provide scientifically sound information are undercut by record levels of distrust of authority.
Universities in particular have a responsibility to help lead the world out of this – and future – pandemics. To this end, the Dalla Lana School of Public Health recently launched the Institute for Pandemics, which puts emphasis on effective communication to build trust with the public. Public health measures are largely useless without public participation. And universities, along with public interest groups, have the potential to move nimbly and use traditional and non-traditional platforms to engage the public. We are also incubators for new ideas about how to use technologies such as machine learning in public health.
Leaders of all kinds and at all levels must start to see themselves as intimately involved in the battle against misinformation around public health issues – not just the next virus but the next anti-vaccine wave or conspiracy theory. Governments accustomed to issuing edicts must learn how new power works – those who perpetuate lies and mistakes are already experts in it. Those who have credibility in their communities – religious, business, civic, hospital, school and other leaders – must use their social media channels and other forms of influence to communicate with their communities in their own languages and words and help authorities understand how to craft protocols that work for everyone.
The way to crowd out bad information and build trust is slow and highly participatory. But it is the only way.