On July 15, Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy issued his first public health advisory warning that misinformation about COVID-19 is an “urgent threat” to public health. He called for individuals, particularly social media users, and tech companies to fight against this misinformation. He wants people and companies to check the accuracy of information, track its origins, and, if unsure of authenticity, avoid sharing it with others. Unfortunately, COVID-19 misinformation is leading to vaccine hesitancy keeping many Americans from protecting themselves. He argues that the COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated just how dangerous health misinformation is, stating that with vaccines widely available and effective, any deaths from COVID-19 now are preventable deaths. He even stated that social media needs a surgeon general warning that misinformation kills. Multiple news organizations covered Dr. Murthy’s press conference. This link offers a story written for NPR and provides a 2-minute audio file of an interview with Dr. Murthy.
Research published this month supports Dr. Murthy’s claims about the danger of misinformation. Based on their results from this national study, researchers stated, “misinformation related to COVID-19 is prolific [and] has practical and negative consequences.” They found that people with high believability in misinformation had lower trust in science, which likely helps explain why some people are vaccine hesitant. Their results demonstrated how complex this issue is though because even those who believed factual, scientific information about COVID-19 also believed some of the misinformation or conspiracy theories circulating. Still, increasing individuals’ knowledge about COVID-19 has shown to increase not only vaccination intention but also support for mandatory vaccination policies. Knowing this from a large nationally representative survey, the researcher of this study recommended policymakers develop communication strategies to educate the public on COVID-19 vaccination.
A mixed method study conducted in the UK found similar concerns about misinformation, mistrust, and vaccine hesitancy. The researchers noted that individuals who were less likely to get vaccinated also had higher levels of distrust in vaccines and mistrust in the government, and were more likely to get information from unregulated social media sources. Their belief in conspiracy theories led to vaccine hesitancy. The authors also called for more action from not only social media companies but also government and health officials to clearly explain complex topics, articulate risk factors, and fill knowledge gaps.
Several research groups have explicitly called for more effective communication to address misinformation, mistrust, and vaccine hesitancy. For example, in this theoretically grounded research study of barriers to vaccination, the researchers stated that “there is a pressing need for health services to continuously provide information to the general population and to address the root causes of mistrust through improved communication.” Other studies have focused on what specifically to communicate. Two independent studies have demonstrated the importance of communicating about response efficacy. In an experimental study, researchers demonstrated the effectiveness of a simple message intervention to increase vaccine intention. Based on their results, they stated, “providing information about the safety and efficacy of the new COVID-19 vaccines results in higher vaccination intentions than among those who do not receive this information.” Another theoretically framed study determined that severity and efficacy may be more influential than susceptibility. The authors stated that their results suggest that “public health announcements that are tailored toward severity of the virus and the efficacy of the health behaviors in decreasing the spread of the virus may meet with more success than those that heightened people’s vulnerability to the disease.” These studies suggest specific content for health messages.
Finally, this commentary provides an insightful look into how communication was, and can be, used during different phases of a pandemic. The authors argue for the importance of effective communication strategies at each of the different phases and note how communication is important in preventing epidemics, responding early to garner public buy-in for proposed interventions, and increasing acceptance for precautions that must be taken to reduce harm. They discuss communication roles, enablers, and challenges at different times of the COVID-19 pandemic. They conclude by stating, “building trust and harnessing transdisciplinary voices that deliver clear, empathetic, and actionable messages using effective communication tailored for different purposes and audiences is critical for prevention and control of future viral diseases.”