A wealth of information about COVID-19 has been circulating from multiple sources, but to ensure that the public understands what they are reading, it is important that information is presented with health literacy in mind. In this study, researchers evaluated the readability of webpages from four English-speaking countries and determined that more than 80% of webpages have poor levels of readability. Governments and public health organizations provide the most readable sources, which they should continue to maintain and ensure the readability of the information they are disseminating to limit misunderstanding among consumers.
In light of the difficulty in understanding websites, many people turn to social media for quick information about the pandemic. Based on an analysis of tweets at the global level, this study presents that the content of COVID-19 tweets span more than just health information but also opinions and mixed emotions that often lead to the dissemination of misinformation. Many U.S. health agencies have made a substantial effort to increase awareness and to educate the public on preventive strategies to reduce the spread of COVID-19 to combat misinformation, but this hasn’t always been the case. This study demonstrated the changing communication patterns of public health agencies and federal stakeholders during the pandemic. Initial messages were found to be insufficient, incongruent, and inconsistent, but efforts have been made to reduce this problematic messaging. One way to help alter ineffective messages is for public health and marketing disciplines to collaborate to create more effective messaging. Using evidence-based best practices and promotional strategies across disciplines can improve population health.
Additional evidence-based strategies include the use of audience segmentation. Not surprisingly, those with lower levels of social resources have suffered more during the pandemic. A recommendation from a research study is to tailor public health interventions based on audience segmentation beyond basic demographics. Instead, targeting audiences based on social resource availability may lead to more effective outcomes for vulnerable populations.
To further reduce the spread of misinformation and to promote prevention behaviors, several scholars have offered theoretically based recommendations, particularly based in psychology. For example, to promote social distancing, researchers conducted an experiment testing two psychologically informed communication strategies and learned that using messages that suggest someone could infect vulnerable people or larger groups of people motivate people to social distance. To reduce the spread of misinformation, a group of international scholars rely on the theory of psychological inoculation. They suggest using effective debunking, real-time rebuttal, and inoculation to resist manipulation techniques used by some message designers. Another group of scholars suggests applying self-determination theory to better understand human behaviors and motivations to offer practical guidelines for public health communication. They suggest the following to foster well-being and basic human psychological needs to cut through the infodemic:
- Create an autonomy-supported health care climate
- Provide choice
- Apply a bottom-up approach to communication
- Create solidarity
- Be transparent and acknowledge uncertainty