The United States has failed to follow many of the best practices in health and crisis communication during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, given that the virus continues to spread, there is still an opportunity to use evidence-based practices moving forward to gain control over the virus. In this article, the authors present recommendations for what state and local officials and public health organizations can do given that there is not a unified, national campaign addressing the issue. They suggest communicating with the public about what behaviors should be enacted and why, emphasizing both individual and community benefits; targeting messages to specific populations, which this study showed the importance of using native languages for understanding targeted messages; and balancing prevention behaviors with mental health concerns and the human need for social connection.
Social Media Uses and Responsibilities
Traditionally, government officials and public health organizations created public service announcements (PSAs) in the form of commercials, posters, and billboards to educate people about public health topics. However, with the widespread use of social media, not only has the type of user who disseminates health information changed but so too has the look of PSAs. And many non-official sources have started developing and disseminating PSA-like materials about COVID-19 via social media. Because of its wide reach, officials should be using this platform to offer credibility to the conversations occurring about COVID-19, but as this study argues, they must determine ways to reach an overcrowded online environment, establish authority as a trusted source in this environment, and counter the overabundance of misinformation circulating.
When providing information, communicators must recognize the immense power that social media has. It has even been labeled an instrument of democratization of knowledge. Unfortunately, this has not been evident during the COVID-19 pandemic. Communication inequalities instead are being reinforced along race and class lines. In this commentary, the authors offer information about how COVID-19 disinformation has become mainstreamed through social media’s spiral of amplification and the need to view communication through the lens of equity. They critique how information is being disseminated to publics not trained to understand it and the systemic need to educate publics about mis- and disinformation.
As public health officials scramble to control the misinformation about COVID-19 that seems to be dominating information sources, some social media platforms have resorted to censoring information. In this essay, the author discusses the problems this approach causes and offers an alternative approach to counteract the spread of misinformation. The problems with censorship include violating the mission of social media platforms (i.e., give everyone a voice to express their opinion), allowing a handful of big tech companies to dominate what information is disseminated, and deciding for consumers what is harmful. To help reduce the spread of medical misinformation without censorship, the author suggests raising awareness about the problem, educating consumers about how social media works, explaining the psychological mechanisms that drive information sharing, and creating understanding about scientific processes and limitations.
Understanding these processes may help people decipher information as the COVID-19 infodemic continues to spread. Authors of this study, developed an Infodemic Risk Index to capture the magnitude of exposure to unreliable news. By analyzing more than 100 million Twitter messages posted worldwide during the first two months of the pandemic, the authors were able to assess the reliability of information being circulated. The majority of unreliable information preceded the first rise of COVID-19 infections likely exposing entire countries to public health threats. By recognizing some of the early warning signs, effective communication strategies can be implemented to mitigate misinformation. The authors argue that without a vaccination, responsible behaviors driven by reliable information are necessary to increase the speed and effectiveness of containing the virus.
Vaccination Communication and Responses
Long-term control of the COVID-19 virus will only occur with the worldwide uptake of a vaccine once developed and approved. However, to encourage individuals to get vaccinated, health communicators must not only promote the vaccine but also address the emotions experienced by individuals as they make this decision. In this commentary, the authors highlight different ways that both positive and negative emotions should be considered and leveraged. It is important to recognize people’s emotions about the pandemic, vaccines, and health behaviors. To address vaccine hesitancy in the short term and increase vaccine confidence in the long term, the authors suggest activating positive emotions and counteracting negative emotions. By increasing self-efficacy and focusing on the benefits of helping one’s community, individuals may have a more positive response to the vaccine. It is important to capitalize on favorable attitudes and beliefs about the COVID-19 vaccine, which other studies have shown to be the majority of people surveyed. Additionally, it is important to acknowledge fear and anger while also emphasizing stringent safety and efficacy standards during the COVID-19 vaccine development process. Finally, messages must raise awareness of the manipulation of negative emotions by disinformation campaigns of anti-vaccine organizers.
It is very important not to overlook this last point as anti-vaccination efforts have created a real threat to safety as more anti-vaccine individuals and groups have taken to social media to disseminate disinformation campaigns about vaccine safety. One study demonstrated how effective these social media campaigns have been at increasing doubts about vaccine safety, which has decreased vaccination coverage with other viruses. Interestingly, much of this disinformation comes from foreign campaigns, particularly tied to Russia, but they have had a tremendous effect on people’s behaviors beyond its borders. The authors urge policymakers to use this time during vaccine development to disseminate accurate information about vaccine safety and efficacy and to provide counter arguments to anti-vaccination efforts so that when mass distribution of a vaccine is available for COVID-19, more people will be vaccinated.