The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic continues to spread across the United States and the world. It is an unprecedented time—among other directives, people in affected areas have been asked to limit contact with others except when necessary (also known as social distancing), which has drastically impacted business, education, and daily life. The effects of the virus change every day, and some states have gone so far as to ask that residents shelter in place and not leave the house unless absolutely necessary.
The amount and nature of information available to the public is changing and evolving constantly. COVID-19 originated in China and has spread across the world, but data are still being collected about cases in the United States. The flood of information, both reliable and unreliable, has only served to make effective communication harder. So what needs to be done?
How the Coronavirus Pandemic Is Different
COVID-19 is unlike previous medical crises, in part because of our collective access to communication technologies. “This is the first pandemic of its kind in the age of social media,” explains K. Vish Viswanath, Lee Kum Kee Professor of Health Communication and director of the Applied Risk Communication for the 21st Century program at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “We have proved, as a system, singularly unprepared to handle this aspect.”
“Because of the saturated information environment, we are getting overwhelmed, even though each medium is covering information in a careful and responsible way, especially the mainstream press,” he explains. “The collective exposure is causing stress. People are struggling with how to stem the tide of information flooding them.”
Unlike journalists, public health officials, and other “gatekeepers” of information, people on social media don’t necessarily have to abide by strict standards of fact-finding. Viswanath says he’s seeing both misinformation (drawing conclusions from wrong or impartial information) and disinformation (deliberately spreading falsehoods to further an agenda) about COVID-19.
This is the first pandemic of its kind in the age of social media. We have proved, as a system, singularly unprepared to handle this aspect.
COVID-19: Misinformation vs. Disinformation
Misinformation can stem from our knowledge gaps: not yet having a full understanding of the virus and our seeming inability to act beyond staying at home. “There’s no cure, no vaccination—people lose their sense of agency, so they try to fill that gap,” explains Viswanath. Speculation may be rampant as a result, and it’s not based in full factual analysis.
Disinformation is more insidious, with certain groups trying to sow seeds of distrust towards institutions. According to Viswanath, “Public health communications operate on the principles of transparency, reliability, and trust. If you can do damage to any of the principles, it can have potentially devastating consequences.”
Spreading what amounts to conspiracy theories can have the impact of making people cynical and less likely to comply with official recommendations, which are especially necessary right now. Some politicians, according to Viswanath, are not helping matters. Spreading false or misleading information as truth will leave memory traces in an audience, even when the information is later proven to be false.
Public health communications operate on the principles of transparency, reliability, and trust.
What an Organization Can Do to Deliver COVID-19 Information
“This won’t be the last pandemic,” says Viswanath. Thus, organizations need to have a robust communications surveillance strategy in place for future crises. Ultimately, there are a few ways professionals conveying formal recommendations can develop and maintain trust:
- Understanding their audiences (class, age, risk, communication style) and tailoring the message to reach them. This might mean using platforms like social media to impart facts and resources.
- Communicating uncertainty clearly—saying that not all information is available is more effective than speculating or making claims.
- Not over- or under-reassuring, but simply laying out risk and potential consequences with the appropriate tone.
- Providing numbers, context, history, and changes to procedure in a timely and straightforward fashion, which can help bolster trust.
- Telling people what they can do and how they can act to keep themselves and others safe.
- Watching social media: understanding what questions and knowledge gaps are coming up and strategizing how to counter myths and threats actively.
In the case of COVID-19 specifically, more information needs to focus on the spread of the virus, the risks associated with contracting it, and why people should comply with the recommendations even if the number of cases are low where they are. Particularly with COVID-19, not enough people understand the reason for social distancing is to prevent disease spread even if the disease will be mild in their case or if their relative risk is low.
Additionally, the word “pandemic” is already a frightening concept that can make an audience feel powerless, so increasing their agency is another important strategy right now. “People are already experiencing the crisis—there’s no point in sugar-coating the current situation,” says Viswanath. “What can you tell people to do so that they are not just recipients of information? Can they be an active participant in this process? Providing a sense of agency is very helpful.”
What can you tell people to do so that they are not just recipients of information? Can they be an active participant in this process? Providing a sense of agency is very helpful.
What an Individual Can Do to Stop Misinformation and Disinformation
Aside from abiding by CDC recommendations, there are ways for people to adapt to the situation and connect with others. Social media can also allow a person to stay in touch with family and friends, help out those who are in need during the pandemic, and have much-needed connection during a time when isolation and stress are high.
A need for accurate information (including well-reported journalism) is more important than ever, says Viswanath, as is an understanding attitude about formal recommendations that may sound extreme but clearly come from an interest in prevention. “It’s not just about you. Don’t spread cynicism but encourage people to understand why compliance is important,” he says.
People can also stop the spread of incorrect information when they see it. “When you see something you doubt, hold off before you forward it. Wait for a day. That is in your hands—you are a link in that chain. You can break that link,” explains Viswanath.
In other words: social distancing prevents the spread of the disease. Distancing from misinformation and disinformation prevents the spread of falsehoods.
Dr. Viswanath directs Applied Risk Communication for the 21st Century at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.