Defining a New Role for Health Communicators in the Misinformation Era
May 6, 2022
If events over the past several years have taught us anything, it’s that misinformation is an entrenched feature of life in the digital age. Rather than fading into the dark corners of the Internet, misinformation has become a pervasive, destabilizing force in our society, impeding efforts to mitigate pandemic threats, arrest climate change, protect democracy and solve many other issues.
For anybody involved in public health communications, the task before us is particularly urgent: failure to address the threat of misinformation undercuts how we build trust in institutions, data and processes – the core elements of modern public health interventions. Our approach to this intractable challenge carries significant risks and opportunities for the way we can harness the power of effective, ethically grounded, communications to blunt future health threats and elevate the role that communicators can play.
First, some level-setting is in order. While we’ve seen a wealth of false guidance, rumors, fake remedies and overtly prejudiced rhetoric related to global efforts to fight Covid-19, misinformation is nothing new. It has been a steady, unwanted companion to centuries of public health programs, from early efforts to vaccinate against smallpox or fight cholera to recent work containing Ebola outbreaks and avian influenza.
Given the high likelihood for misinformation to spread faster and negatively influence public health interventions, we should have been better prepared for the potential of social media, misinformed policymakers and hyper-partisan media to wreak havoc on the command-and-control functions of our national – and global – pandemic response. But in pandemic simulations that public health leaders conducted over the past decade, substantive coverage for how social networks and misinformation could derail efforts to contain an infectious disease outbreak was limited or absent. Just two months before SARS-CoV-2 was first detected, another simulation delivered a prescient assessment of the impact of misinformation and disinformation to derail pandemic response actions, but nature didn’t give us the chance to apply those important lessons.
Among its many distinctions, the Covid-19 pandemic has served as a massive global test case for how we can harness the full potential of human innovation, while simultaneously being sabotaged by basic, entrenched human folly. At a time when science rose to meet the challenge, communications fell down.
We have an opportunity to do better. Learning from the wealth of pandemic data available to us is an imperative for the communications industry. Now is the time to reassert our expertise and define a higher level of ethical leadership for how we navigate the challenges of misinformation. Here’s where we can start.
Acknowledge first that there is no such thing as a pollutant-free communications environment, particularly in democracies. Misinformation is the heavy price we pay for free speech and an open Internet. It functions like a many-headed hydra, with data showing that efforts to directly refute false statements, particularly on social media, can fuel an increase in misleading posts or amplify erroneous information that has been previously refuted.
Our job as communicators is to leverage all the tools at our disposal to educate people on how to be better, more discerning consumers of information. Recent research studies, some conducted by social media companies no less, indicate that flagging potentially erroneous information and prompting people to pause and dig deeper before sharing may stem the flow of misleading content.
Taking it further, we can use our deep understanding of audience segmentation, demographic targeting and influencer cultivation as a force for good, particularly in public health communications. From the events of the past several years, we have a strong understanding of who is susceptible to specific types of misinformation and how to use convert communicators and messaging that is grounded in behavioral science to help educate consumers.
To do this requires all communicators to acknowledge an inconvenient truth: Misinformation sells. And in a hyper competitive environment where the incentive is to stand out, we have an opportunity to define a new model for ethical leadership in health communications. Recognizing our own historic failures can provide us with the kind of powerful introspection required to deliver effective guidance on curtailing misinformation and support our industry’s buyer power to force greater accountability among platforms whose algorithms are designed to amplify misinformation.
Defining a higher ethical standard for health communicators is an important credential for encouraging new players to help mitigate miscommunications. While institutions such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or the World Health Organization, along with individual health care providers, should serve as singular sources for credible health guidance, we need to build a bigger tent of supporters to address future pandemics.
Why is this important? As Covid-19 showed, public health is everyone’s business. It is intertwined with our economy, our politics, and our communities, which is why we have a unique opportunity to engage non-health companies to support health-related communications, in large part by working with credible actors to increase the volume of factual information and help educate consumers on sources of factual information. We need more organizations and individuals, from airline companies to celebrities, who are outside of the traditional health community to expand the circle of influence on health-related communications. This is essential for reaching reluctant audiences and building a volume of science-driven content that stands in contrast to misleading guidance.
If we take these steps, we might earn a seat at the table with policymakers who are mapping out plans to prepare for the next global health emergency. Health communicators continue to be absent or underrepresented in important public health conversations held by the U.S. government and other leading countries. This is a major void that should be corrected if we expect to manage misinformation in future disease outbreaks and reinforce key government agencies as credible sources for guidance.
It’s time we apply the hard lessons from fighting Covid-19 misinformation to develop cross-industry partnerships, engage and educate a wide variety of communities and raise the bar for accountability and ethical leadership. The next public health crisis won’t wait for us to get our act together.