While the Covid-19 pandemic has seen the unprecedented spread of a coronavirus, it has also led to previously unheard of levels of information sharing. The proliferation of sharing platforms has enabled both the rapid dissemination of public health messages and helped to accelerate the publication of scientific content. But it has also facilitated the spread of rumour, stigma, and conspiracy theories.
In December 2020, the President of the United Nations General Assembly suggested that responses to the pandemic had been hindered substantially by the widespread circulation of inaccurate information. “COVID-19 is a communications crisis,” he noted. “It is not simply a pandemic. It is an ‘infodemic’. And this has cost lives. Misinformation and disinformation can lead to a lack of diagnostic tests, poor observance of public health measures and lack of immunisation.”
The World Health Organization (WHO) defines an infodemic as, “too much information, including false or misleading information, in digital and physical environments during a disease outbreak”. While managing the spread of information has been debated both at a national and international level, responsibility for clear messaging also falls upon more local communities, including within organisations.
Recent studies suggest that people pay attention to more reliable sources as a pandemic escalates and that, on Twitter, science-based information is re-tweeted more than false information. While this is reassuring, there remains a need for long-term strategies that ensure credible, concise and actionable information continues to reach its intended audiences.
In the context of an infodemic, risk communication and community engagement are central to making sure any person at risk continues to have sufficient and appropriate information to manage their risk. The following are useful considerations for organisations responding during an infodemic.
Selecting and using sources of information
While a proliferation of information and guidance has been made available throughout the pandemic, content published by national and international bodies is likely to have been rigorously reviewed and is thus a more reliable source.
The increase in freely available research material has enabled valuable scientific findings to reach audiences quickly. However, attempts to speed up the research process have also removed some of the review rigour. Screening information from an academic source to determine its credibility is therefore important. This might involve checking the reputation of a journal, considering whether the research in question has been peer reviewed and scrutinising the research design ( methods, sample size etc).
Building trust through communication
Dealing with uncertainty, unknowns and mixed messaging has been a significant challenge of the pandemic. Consequently, organisations may have struggled to communicate clearly with internal stakeholders. Where conflicting guidance or uncertainty exists, it will be wise to communicate openly, ensuring transparency and visibility.
Ensuring that communication is two-way and that individuals’ thoughts and concerns are considered (using surveys, focus groups etc.) is a key way to build trust. Audiences are most receptive to messages when they have confidence in the messenger’s competence, motives, empathy and integrity. Good listening is an essential aspect of this.
Scientific responses to public health emergencies are cognitive and based on severity and prevalence. In contrast, public responses are generally more emotional and driven by factors such as personal perception of risk, anxiety and level of control. Overly scientific information is thus unlikely to resonate with individuals and messaging personalised to local audiences will have more chance of being effective.
Varying risk perceptions means that concerns differ from community to community and between the people within those communities. It is, therefore, important to ensure that information is tailored to meet the needs of the audience in question. Establishing the causes of most uncertainty and most concern within an organisation is an effective way of determining the tone and content of messaging.
Achieving long-term adherence to recommendations
At the start of a pandemic, adherence to recommendations may be more easily achieved because fear and uncertainty drive behaviour. Over time, as fatigue sets in, individuals may require more carefully considered interventions and a different approach to communication.
Individuals with pandemic fatigue, low perceptions of risk, or oppositional worldviews may become resistant to recommendations. In contrast, other individuals may become overly cautious to the extent that some may even feel fatalistic. Making it easier to follow rather than defy recommendations is a useful approach for both sets of individuals. For example, tying recommendations to existing behaviours or nudging individuals may help to establish habits.
Note: Open WHO offers a free online infodemic management course explaining communication and community engagement (RCCE) principles.