In this age of media saturation and polarization, wrong information can flourish with a detrimental impact on public health. To learn why people believe unverified health information, the ensuing consequences, and how to combat this trend, Westat Associate Director TaWanna Berry, MA, recently moderated a panel discussion of experts—Community Collaborations: A Powerful Tool for Identifying and Responding to Misinformation—at the 2023 National Conference on Health Communication, Marketing, and Media (NCHCMM).
The panel included Matthew Kreuter, PhD, MPH, Professor and Associate Dean for Public Health, Brown School, Washington University in St. Louis; Jessica Otero Machuca, MPH, Certified Health Education Specialist and Associate Clinical Research Coordinator, Mayo Clinic; and Lisa Fazio, PhD, Associate Professor of Psychology and Human Development, Peabody College of Education and Human Development, Vanderbilt University.
In the following discussion, Berry shares the panel’s conversation around communication challenges and solutions during the COVID-19 pandemic and innovative tools that can be used to counter the spread of incorrect health information now and in the future.
Q. Is there a difference between spreading incorrect health information and spreading disinformation?
A. Definitely. Often incorrect health information is spread when someone thinks information is true, but it is in fact incorrect. That wrong information then floats out in the universe where many come to accept it as factual. Disinformation is the explicit sharing of incorrect information to sway people’s beliefs.
Q. What did the panelists say are the immediate and long-term consequences of the spread of incorrect health information?
A. They echoed the fact that the spread of incorrect information can result in serious illness and millions of deaths, which we saw during the pandemic. Over the long term, this kind of incorrect information erodes people’s trust in public health institutions and scientific research and can contribute to health disparities.
Q. What was their take on why it seems that we are more susceptible to incorrect health information lately?
A. The panelists agreed that the public is consuming great amounts of content daily without critically processing it. Also, many people are forming opinions based on biases, which hinders their ability to recognize fact from fiction.
Q. Who are most susceptible to believing incorrect health information?
A. All of us are susceptible to believing and/or spreading incorrect information when we are not thinking critically. Surprisingly, one of our panelists proved this at our session. She offered a fictional question to the audience: “How many animals of each kind did Abraham bring to the ark?” The audience assumed the question was true—that it was Abraham who did this—and answered “2.”
Q. How did the panelists combat the spread of incorrect information in their communities during the pandemic?
A. Two of the panelists represented research teams that are part of the National Institutes of Health’s (NIH’s) Community Engagement Alliance (CEAL) Against COVID-19 initiative. These research teams, led by academic institutions, formed partnerships with community-based organizations to provide trustworthy and scientific-based information about COVID-19 testing and vaccines. They used rapid research approaches to find effective ways to deliver information to communities hardest hit by the pandemic. Many found that delivering information via trusted messengers—people, organizations, and programs that community members trusted—worked to address knowledge gaps and correct incorrect information and beliefs.
Q. What are some innovative ways of getting ahead of the spread of incorrect information?
A. During the pandemic, Washington University rolled out a program called iHeard St. Louis to monitor health information that was spreading through the city. It involves a weekly survey sent out to more than 200 paid participants to glean information from the public about their top public health concerns and information they have heard on key health topics. Once responses are received, the information is used to create messaging that provides factual and easy-to-digest information for the public on those key topics. The team then develops digital assets, which are shared weekly with partners and trusted messenger organizations, who in turn share the information on their own channels.
Q. Could this program be modeled nationwide?
A. We think it can. Westat is working with the NIH and CEAL to pilot test if the process used in the iHeard program can be expanded to other states.
Q. What information hurdles do you foresee health communicators facing in the future?
A. Artificial intelligence (AI) presents one potential hurdle. It could exacerbate the spread of misinformation, but it could also be helpful in communicating scientific-based information to the public. We will need to determine how best to leverage it to help bring about positive change.
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