Combating Covid Misinformation

The odds of dying after getting a Covid vaccine are virtually non-existent. But our social media feeds, and the flood of forwarded messages are sure to convince us otherwise.

This article originally appeared in The Assam Tribune on April 24, 2021.

It takes less than five clicks on social media to get to misinformation or disinformation, with regard to the coronavirus spread and the vaccination drive. From claims that you can beat Covid by drinking a magic potion to theories that vaccines are life-threatening and totally ineffective, the Covid-19 pandemic has demonstrated just how dangerous medical and scientific misinformation and disinformation can be in the digital age. The difference between misinformation and disinformation is that of intent. Misinformation is the lack of correct and factual information, without any ill intentions. Disinformation, on the other hand, is deliberately spreading false and incorrect information, with the intention of misleading the people. The Covid-19 pandemic has a good mix of both of these.

The odds of dying after getting a Covid vaccine are virtually non-existent. But our social media feeds, and the flood of forwarded messages are sure to convince us otherwise.

This, however, is not the first time a medical emergency has led to a misinformation pandemic. During the spread of the Ebola virus in Africa, fake news and misinformation made it extremely difficult for countries and public health workers to gain the trust of the people and administer vaccines and treatment.

In the internet age, fake news and misinformation are expected, but what is shocking this time around is the sheer scope and impact of the disinformation, and these discussions taking center stage. Starting from the utility and effectiveness of wearing masks, social distancing norms, and ultimately the vaccines. If we do a little digging, it is found that a handful of individuals or groups, including some politicians, celebrities, and public figures contribute to more than 80% of the social media misinformation.

With the second wave sweeping the nation, it is more crucial than ever to fight misinformation and disinformation, and clearly communicate to the people the ways to stay safe, self-isolate at home, and bust myths about vaccination. There are still many, above the age of 45, who are apprehensive of the vaccines being administered and are thinking of waiting it out.

Social media has been the most significant contributor to this spread of false information. The issue was prevalent way before Covid, but now the consequences are life-threatening. Although some platforms like Facebook and Twitter have started taking steps in the right direction, like Twitter flagging posts and Instagram putting out flags and disclaimers, there is much more that can be done.

So now, the pressing question in front of nations, governments, and public health officials is – How do we minimize the spread of misinformation? To be honest, in a free and democratic society, in the digital age, we can never be completely free of misinformation or disinformation. But when it comes to critical scenarios, such as the current Covid-19 pandemic, there needs to be a consensus and a collective effort towards fighting misinformation. I personally feel a few things that can be proactively undertaken to combat misinformation and eliminate the consequences.

A concentrated campaign by credible public health bodies and governments, partnering with influencers who have the reach, backed by science and data. An informative awareness campaign with a mix of medical experts, celebrities, and civil society organizations will ensure consistent messaging across all platforms and media.

Despite the social media platforms’ efforts for flagging or removing misinformation regarding Covid-19, much more has to be done on their part. The efforts of the social media giants are often delayed and reactive, which results in incorrect information circulating among the users. Therefore, it is crucial for social media companies to become more transparent and aggressive, and join hands with international, national, and local governments for removing misinformation and disinformation regarding Covid-19. Public health officials must work with the companies in identifying the common misinformation sources, subsequently anticipate future misinformation spread from those sources, and remove them in real-time, to minimize the consequences. But for it to work, the entire process must be made transparent, credible, and robust.

Any campaign that aims to spread awareness and facts among the masses, needs to have access to the audience data and interpret the behavior of the audience. Behavioral science comes into play in a big way and needs to be leveraged much like the Advertisement industry. The reason Ads work and make us want products is because they understand the demographics of their target audience and play to that. The communication coming out of public health organizations, unfortunately, often do not even consider this. An understanding of the choice and preferences of the users active on digital media platforms is crucial for drafting and delivering a message that resonates with them. Most social media agencies today operate without a behavioral science expert, which makes the message fall flat on its face, without having the desired impact. It would serve the governments and public health bodies well to ramp up efforts in understanding their audiences first, and then expose Covid-19 misinformation through data and facts, in a format that is sure to convince and persuade them.

For flattening the curve and breaking the chain, and ultimately putting Covid-19 behind us, effectively combating the misinformation pandemic will be critical. Previous communicable disease outbreaks have shown us just how important public health awareness and communications are in restricting the spread of the disease. In the digital and social media age, the spread of misinformation and disinformation is a major impediment to such efforts and thus requires a very strategic and sophisticated response. Implementation and execution of the above strategies by the center, state, and health bodies could be the best way to counter the misinformation pandemic surrounding the current pandemic and save us from the next one.