Writing in The Atlantic last August, Nat Gyenes and An Xiao Mina described how online misinformation can fuel epidemics such as Ebola virus disease and measles. They called such outbreaks “misinfodemics.” As Gyenes explains for Harvard Public Health, the conventional public health responses will not be enough to stem these modern digital plagues.
Well-documented examples of misinfodemics include the recent outbreaks of Ebola and measles. In the 2013–16 Ebola outbreak in West Africa, false cures, such as bathing in hot water and salt or consuming bitter nuts from the kola tree, were propagated through social media.
The original public health approach was to go to state authorities and have them visit local communities and spread messages about proper treatment and control of Ebola. But that didn’t work, because the communities did not perceive the authorities as trusted sources. It turned out that YouTube celebrities—whom the communities viewed as trusted sources—could shift the narrative and encourage World Health Organization–endorsed prevention strategies. A Liberian rapper named Shadow made music videos that resonated well with communities. One song, titled ‘Ebola in Town,’ discouraged shaking hands and eating bush meat, and inspired the creation of a dance that mimicked embracing from a distance. The virality of his videos was one indicator of how fast public health–oriented messages could spread through creative media approaches.
Another worrisome example of a misinfodemic involves vaccination, the measles vaccine being a prominent case right now. A recent paper looked at the landscape of vaccine hesitancy and sentiment on Facebook, a place where younger generations are getting sensitized to vaccine hesitancy as a norm, something that may impact the distribution of herd immunity in the long term. Researchers clustered the most dominant messages being propagated; some of these messages framed vaccination as a moral transgression, claiming the Bible doesn’t support vaccination. Others framed vaccination as a violation of civil liberties, using ‘right to choose’ language.
For the public health community, it’s a real challenge to translate our messages through media. We forget that as professionals, we’re communicating in a specialized language that we learn—a language of statistics, epidemiology, the distinction between causation and correlation. Instead, we need to use language that can diffuse crucial information out into the broader digital information network—for example, creative data visualizations that are simple but accessible, or information delivered through memes. Media training should be a core component of public health education.
–Madeleine Drexler is editor of Harvard Public Health
Illustration: ©John Jay Cabuay