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When the Spanish Flu pandemic hit the US in 1918, it took several months for Public health officials to begin education programs and advertise the dangers of coughing and sneezing, and the behaviour of individuals when sick. Meanwhile, they placed quarantine signs on the doors of the homes where occupants had fallen ill with the flu.
Compared to the Spanish Flu, the COVID-19 pandemic rose in an era of mass access to information. As soon as the first cases appeared in Wuhan, the world was already talking about it. We knew where it originated, how many people were sick and dying, and how quickly it was spreading. But we soon learned also what the rest of the world was speculating. We were told, shown, and virtually assaulted with the various conspiracy theories about SARS‑CoV‑2 origin and spread, about diagnosis and pseudoscientific therapies, and about how the strong or well-known public figures are plotting against entire nations of Earth to establish world domination.
A decade ago, mRNA vaccines were just starting to be designed and developed, but most likely just a handful of people understood the science behind it. Luckily for us, those people didn’t give up on the idea and developed it through these past years so that the technology was ready to be applied on a large scale, relatively soon after the SARS‑CoV‑2 hit. However, when the vaccine against SARS‑CoV‑2 was available to the general public, not everyone was ready to acknowledge its benefits. The vaccination rate is still disappointing in some countries or regions due to population hesitancy. Why so? Mass panic due to the general confusion and misinformation.
The fact of the matter is, not all information is born equal. Infodemic is an overabundance of information —some accurate, some not — that spreads alongside a disease outbreak. Social media play an increasingly important role in misinformation and in spreading both accurate and inaccurate information, and putting public health at risk. Misinformation is very easily accessible and sometimes not recognizable. For the lay public, using the media and the social media as principal sources of information, COVID-19 science and the related vaccination has become somewhat of a debate topic, riddled with fake news and fake science. Millions of people do not know what to believe anymore.
So how could we, as medical information professionals, navigate the turbulent waters of communicating COVID-19 science as what it is?
1. Break the science down into „digestible” bits. Describe it as a recipe in a book. The danger with this approach is that some, who barely understood the recipe book, will think they have understood the actual genetic engineering process. They will cite bits and pieces that get distorted, or worse, ‘enrich’ the message with their ideas. That is where a lot of misinformation can originate.
2. Consider the several initiatives created by WHO together with the United Kingdom Government to manage and combat the spread of misinformation through a series of communication campaigns and collaborations like the ones below:
3. Achieve prophylaxis of COVID-19 misinformation, by taking concrete steps to improve trust in science and scientists, such as building understanding of the scientific process and supporting open science initiatives.
4. Scientists, health information professionals and journalists should exercise their professional responsibility to help the general public identify fake news stories, and to ensure that accurate information is published and disseminated.
- The newly established European Digital Media Observatory will contribute to a deeper understanding of disinformation– relevant actors, vectors, tools, methods, dissemination dynamics, prioritised targets and the impact on the society.
- Professionals in the fields of communication, education, and health behaviour need to take responsibility for carefully evaluating what is known and what is currently emerging. Effective health communication is a key factor in fighting the COVID-19 pandemic.
5. Increase the appeal of corrective messages. Although the most common way in which health communicators attempt to correct misinformation is through factual elaboration on why something was wrong and by stating the facts, other formats may be more courteous (and perceived as less offensive) toward those taken in by misinformation. Corrections should consider
- telling stories about likeable individuals who realize they fell for a false or misleading claim
- using visuals (cues and evidence). Human brain is attracted to images and hardwired to trust that which they record as reality. Existing research found verbal and visual corrections to be more enjoyable and more convincing than purely textual corrections especially those employing a video format.
Modis has the full stack of skills and expertise to implement these strategies in communication. Thus, it can contribute to gaining public trust in science and evidence (crucial in overcoming this COVID-19 pandemic) and to limiting the damage and spread of false information in an attractive and convincing manner.