ITL #361 - Coronavirus: tackling misinformation in a time of panic

2 months, 2 weeks ago


Accurate and inaccurate information about COVID-19 is spreading faster than the investigations medical experts are conducting into the virus. By Trey Watkins.

On December 31, as the world prepared to ring in a new decade, focus quickly turned to Wuhan, China, where the first case of a new coronavirus was officially reported. One month later, more than 8,200 people in 18 countries showed signs of the virus and the World Health Organization (WHO) officially declared it a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC), a rare distinction given only five other times to disease outbreaks that posed particular international threat.

Since then, this strain of coronavirus – or covid-19 as it’s been named – has tested health systems, economies and communities around the world. Today, the virus has crossed more than 30 borders and killed more than 2,200 people.

Little is actually known about covid-19, but it has become ubiquitous, grabbing international attention and headlines. As the number of cases reported continues to rise in the region and abroad, much attention has focused on China’s handling of the situation. Was its leadership too quiet in the early days of the outbreak? Were they right to effectively quarantine the entire city of Wuhan? And following the death of Dr. Li Wenliang, a Wuhan-based ophthalmologist who was reprimanded by his government when first warning colleagues of a potential new virus in December 2019, questions have risen regarding what the Chinese government knew, and when.


These are all important questions that carry their own communications considerations, but the implications of covid-19 reach far beyond mainland China, only complicated by the rapid spread of misinformation.


The problem is that, in an age of global connectivity, the speed at which information – both accurate and exaggerated – is spreading is far outpacing the investigations being conducted and what experts actually understand about the virus. And, as each news cycle brings an update on rising caseloads and deaths, travel bans and quarantined cruise-goers, consumers are left with little more than panic as we consider a pandemic of apocalyptic levels.


Strong, reliable and evidence-based communications is critical to make sure that accurate information breaks through this noise and resonates with consumers and communities. But accurate information means little if it is not also trusted. There are a number of things that we, as communicators, can and should be doing to ensure this happens.


The digital divide

In a brave new digital world, consumers have unprecedented access to information. It’s at the tips of our fingers, whether in capital cities or rural villages. As we’ve seen with the anti-vaxxer movement, digital and social media platforms have the powerful ability to promote a counter-narrative built on inaccurate, often emotionally charged, information. Even in the presence of evidence, this can result in a divide between accurate and not-so accurate information, creating a rift in communities.


The WHO has begun working with tech companies and social media giants to tackle misinformation by  helping to ensure accurate and reliable information penetrates online dialogue and populates search engine results when consumers search for the latest information or remedy. This approach is important, but we communicators must also work to combat the underlying algorithms that continue to fill our screens with false information and our minds with a Contagion-like plotline. As an industry, we have an opportunity to leverage these social and digital platforms for good, as powerful tools to support compelling campaigns that shape a new narrative and encourage healthy behaviors.     


It’s all about context

In the same way, we must work to ensure balanced, comprehensive perspectives and accurate information are woven into the stories we create. We know that shock and fear sell a better story, but in the time of an outbreak, it’s critical that we help shape a broader picture of the situation by providing the fuller context.


Recently, an updated reporting protocol in the Hubei province led to an overnight spike in cases that captured imaginations around the world. Unfortunately, the cause of this spike was largely absent from coverage, leaving consumers to assume that this unknown virus was far more powerful than we’d thought.


Similarly, a more direct look at the fatality rate of covid-19, as compared to other outbreaks, might help to assuage concerns of its ability to wipe out modern societies. The fact remains that, while it does appear to be incredibly infectious, its fatality rate is relatively low. The Coronavirus outbreak reminds us that we can’t take the numbers at face value but, unfortunately, broader context and perspective are often missing from the discussion.


Be honest about what we know

In an outbreak, trust is paramount. But in a quickly evolving space, where little is known, it’s tough to come by. There is fear in the unknown, but there is also power in it. When we are honest about what is known – and what is not – rather than skirting the issue, we are able to more effectively own the story and build trust with communities. By stating exactly what is known, we can help to blunt dangerous rumors and speculation.


But when we don’t address the unknown head on, we leave space for misinformation to penetrate the discussion and prevail in the minds of millions. In the absence of information, communities will seek it where they can find it. By addressing, honestly, the unknown, we can help to curtail this.   


Consider societal implications

Misinformation about infection – it’s source, cause, mode of transmission, virulence, fatality rate, etc. – carry serious implications for societies. Beyond our physical health, misinformation can inform beliefs that shape behaviors and form – or perpetuate – misconceptions about entire communities and cultures.


Rampant misinformation about Coronavirus is fueling xenophobia and stigma that threatens physical, verbal and financial harm to the Asian community. As communicators, we must think beyond any one outbreak to consider its implications and the way we are communicating about it on our societies, and the role we play to help keep them intact.


In the face of an outbreak, communications is crucial. Coronavirus is reminding us the importance of our multifaceted industry to help shape a narrative that strikes a nuanced balance that at once inspires a sense of urgency, assuages panic and avoids apathy. Trust will be key. After all, misinformation is fueled not simply by the absence of information, but by the absence of information that is trusted and reliable.


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The Author

Trey Watkins

Trey Watkins, MPH, Senior Vice President, Global Health & Corporate Responsibility, GCI Health, leads the global health and corporate responsibility offering at GCI Health, a global integrated healthcare communications agency. He has a background in international health and development and has served in several capacities in the UN system, most recently as a health advisor in the UN Secretary-General’s office.

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