This article is sponsored by Philip Morris International.
In the spring of 2020, Americans craved news on the novel coronavirus. Amid stay-at-home mandates, many turned to social media as their most immediate, trusted source of information. What could have been an opportunity for community and national medical leaders to efficiently disseminate vital precautions, instead became an example of widespread misinformation that continues to thwart coronavirus mitigation efforts.
In a recent health misinformation virtual roundtable hosted by the National Journal, 10 public health and mass communication leaders discussed ways accurate reporting may win more audiences despite the proliferation of online misinformation. The session was underwritten by Philip Morris International.
Panelists noted that sharing health care instructions during viral outbreaks has always been problematic, pointing specifically to polio (1952-1962), measles (1981-1991) and H1N1 (2009). However, doing so during the coronavirus pandemic has proven harder due to various media platforms.
Social media allows false information to spread quickly while people are still forming their ideas. Once initial understandings of a topic take root, research shows it is much harder to correct them. It takes five seconds to make a meme, but 15 minutes to debunk it, explained one panelist.
What can be done?
Some of the best solutions to misinformation on social media involve better use of social media. Social media is great at quickly disseminating easily digestible, bite-size nuggets of information. Memes that illustrate complex issues are also useful, though timing is everything.
The information a viewer receives first is given more weight than subsequent reports, often regardless of which story is accurate. That means health care experts need to be using social media more, if medically accurate messages are to gain credence.
One way to reach more people quickly is to have influencers carry the message. At times, they may be more effective messengers than even medical experts, especially among population segments that don’t trust large institutions such as the CDC. Audiences with a long-standing distrust of established institutions tend to put more value on information from alternative sources, like the many that proliferate on social media platforms.
Another strategy to combat misinformation is to hold media platforms responsible for the proliferation of false or misleading information on their sites. In July 2021, Senators Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Ray Lujan (D-N.M.) introduced the Health Misinformation Act, which, if passed, could make it easier to sue digital platforms that promote health misinformation during a health crisis.
However, many platforms are only facilitators of news, instead of publishing news themselves, which could make it difficult to hold them responsible. Some platforms use auto-moderator tools to monitor content, but it can be hard to be thorough. Using the media tools available more constructively may be more effective, panelists said.
Panelists said finding solutions is vital even after the coronavirus pandemic passes, as the problem is not limited to health care. The panelists cautioned that if accurate information provided by vetted sources is consistently drowned out by misinformation, distrust of official sources grows, governance becomes difficult and public welfare can be adversely affected.