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Fighting the Other Pandemic: Misinformation

Credit: istockphoto.com/Orbon Alija

In the wake of the explosive COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, governments, health organizations and news organizations have been struggling to contain both the virus and the rampant misinformation about it that continues to permeate the media landscape. Inconsistent and contradictory information has created confusion and a lack of trust, and has done little to encourage people to take reasonable precautions. The goal of any leader or communication professional in a crisis like this should be to develop a clear, coherent and consistent messaging strategy to ensure public health.

The global outbreak of COVID-19 has caused an avalanche of false claims and misinformation. Conspiracies abound, spread through social media and word-of-mouth, regarding the origin of the virus as well as how it can be contracted, transmitted and treated. These rumors lend credence to the global anxiety about if and how the disease can be contained. Blatantly false and dangerous rumors that bleach, colloidal silver and essential oils are all effective treatments have created a malignant cottage industry of snake oil cures that further feeds into this infodemic. The U.S. Federal Trade Commission has so far sanctioned seven businesses for promoting their products as a “coronavirus cure.

In the midst of this pandemic, reactions and statements by government and health officials have offered confusing and often contradictory advice. People under quarantine have received inconsistent directives from state health officials about what they can and cannot do, how the quarantine affects those closest to them and where, as well as how or if they’ll be tested for the virus itself.

And stories of these confounding experiences make headlines, exacerbating the climate of mistrust and uncertainty for the populace at large. In short, the narrative has gotten away from leadership, and it’s showing no signs of slowing down.

Rely on trusted sources

Organizations like the World Health Organization (WHO) and Centers for Disease Control (CDC) have tried to combat this dangerous misinformation as best they can. The WHO hosts a daily press briefing broadcast on its site and on Twitter on the spread of the virus and has dedicated web pages and hotlines geared toward providing the most up-to-the minute information. The CDC and various news outlets have adopted similar strategies. Despite these efforts, the misinformation about COVID-19 is as viral as the disease itself.

The root of this problem is two-pronged. First, the lack of a singular authoritative source providing consistent, coherent information. The media, health organizations, federal and local officials have been providing contradictory, insufficient or out-of-date information. This is due to several factors, such as how quickly the situation is developing, the inherent lack of information around a novel virus, and conflicting goals on how best to keep people informed while avoiding mass panic. This results in disorientation about where to turn and who to trust for directives of how best to avoid infection and slow down the spread of the virus.

Define a unified response

More COVID-19 resources

See IABC’s page of additional resources on responding to COVID-19, such as articles, webinars and discussions in IABC’s online community, The Hub.

As often happens today, people turn to social media to fill in the gaps in their understanding. Twitter is overrun with wildly inaccurate and panic-inducing rumors surrounding the virus. And in the past few years, “alternative medicine” Facebook groups have become incredibly influential on a community level, discouraging distrust in medical authorities and positioning the knowledge of the group as reputable sources of information for “natural remedies” for all manner of serious medical issues. Their collective power is so great that outbreaks of once-eradicated diseases are becoming increasingly common across the U.S. The echo chamber effect, maintained by the insular nature of these groups and their rejection of medical science, allows their members to perpetuate misinformation under the guise of opinion or discussion.

The best way to combat this infodemic is for officials to unite under a standardized message that remains the same across the board and is aligned with the truth and science. Instead, we’ve been seeing the government say one thing and the medical community immediately has to say the opposite, or patients receive conflicting advice from various local resources when trying to understand their options.

While the scope of the virus is different in every country, city and state, leaders should be focused on aligning their messaging with each other and with the CDC, WHO and medical community if we want even a hope at stopping the spread. Getting the public to take an unprecedented event in their lifetime seriously enough to make significant changes to their daily lives while easing fears and mitigating unproductive panic is a balancing act, but it absolutely is doable with the right communications strategy.

Leaders should maintain open lines of communication with all their stakeholders, and a clear, unified response will help the public know what to do and feel assured that their leaders are organized and have and are enacting a plan of attack. Transparent communication about testing, quarantine rules and behaviors, and treatment should be standardized so that people know they can trust the guidance from official channels (and so those seeking help or advice don’t feel like they’re getting the runaround).

Monitor social media

Working closely with social media (where news lives and unfolds daily) is also imperative to curb the effects of this campaign of misinformation. Google, Facebook and Twitter have all taken aggressive steps to limit the damage caused by lies spread by users on their platforms. Facebook is banning posts that share misleading content, labeling inaccurate posts with warnings about their falsity, and it is giving the WHO free ad space to promote accurate information to the public. YouTube (owned by Google) currently prohibits videos “promot[ing] medically unsubstantiated methods to prevent the coronavirus in place of seeking medical treatment.” And Twitter has banned accounts for spreading misinformation about the treatment of COVID-19.

To further control the narrative, authorities must, and I cannot stress this enough, be proactive rather than reactive. They must saturate the discussion with facts before bad actors are able to manipulate new findings and prey on people’s fears. As testing increases, the number of reported cases are going to rise and with it, the anxiety that can overwhelm people and inhibit rational behavior. To prevent this, using data to identify the specific beats and arguments promoted by conspiracy theorists can enable the creation of powerful counter messaging that presents the facts of the situation.

The best part about media today is that everything is quantifiable, so it’s possible to identify trends before they burst into the national consciousness (i.e., mainstream media coverage) and influence them accordingly.

Messaging is absolutely critical for this situation. Developing a clear, coherent and consistent message across all fronts that balances the need to inform the public so it takes COVID-19 seriously and can help slow down its spread, while also easing fears and avoiding panic are crucial right now. The more leaders can do to present a unified, well-informed and proactive front, the better the reaction by the public will be and the less susceptible they’ll be to falling for misinformation—and the safer we’ll be for it.

4 ways to minimize misinformation

1. Monitor social media trends to see what the public is saying about a situation.

Understand what the public is misconstruing so that you can more easily address their confusion and fears. Counter-messaging that directly addresses these points, with facts and research, goes a long way toward reducing the spread and acceptance of inaccurate information.

2. Leverage local authorities and respected members of the community (think church leaders, doctors, teachers, and parent-teacher associations) to disseminate accurate information on a local level. Remember the medium and messenger are as important as the content, and sometimes it takes getting the news from someone you know and trust personally to make it stick.

3. Use clear, easy-to-understand language when communicating facts. You’re speaking to a wide audience, so avoiding specialized jargon, abbreviations, and statistics in favor of direct, concise speech to keep people engaged and informed.

4. Encourage real conversation and interaction with trusted sources. In the case of COVID-19, local, national and international health experts including the WHO and CDC have set up expert hotlines that directly connect people with experts and trusted authorities. It’s so easy to get caught up in viral news that isn’t accurate. Pushing direct contact with trusted officials is a great way to encourage people to connect with accurate sources, on a personal level, and prevents them from believing a rumor spread over their social media feed.

Eric Yaverbaum

Eric Yaverbaum, CEO of Ericho Communications, is a communication, media, and public relations expert with over 35 years in the industry, having co-founded Jericho Communications and served as president from 1985 until its successful merger in 2006 with LIME Public Relations & Promotions. Eric has worked with a wide range of top-of-their-industry clients including Sony, IKEA, Progressive Insurance, Domino’s, Beachbody, H&M, and fitness guru Jack LaLanne. Eric is also a bestselling author who literally wrote the book on public relations, the industry-standard bestseller PR for Dummies, as well as six other titles including Leadership Secrets of the World’s Most Successful CEOs. His expert commentary has been featured on Forbes, The Washington Post, The New York Times, HuffPost, CNBC, Fox Business, and PR Week, among others.

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