COVID Case Study: Defining & Confronting Misinformation

In today’s highly digital and social landscape, it is critical for your organization’s brand to be a source of accurate information while confronting misinformation.

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, we have heard our elected and health leaders denounce the spread of misinformation. In fact, the World Health Organization (WHO) went so far as to term misinformation spread during the pandemic as an ‘infodemic’.

In describing an infodemic, the WHO states:

“An infodemic is an overabundance of information, both online and offline. It includes deliberate attempts to disseminate wrong information to undermine the public health response and advance alternative agendas of groups or individuals. Mis- and disinformation can be harmful to people’s physical and mental health; increase stigmatization; threaten precious health gains; and lead to poor observance of public health measures, thus reducing their effectiveness and endangering countries’ ability to stop the pandemic.”

Very few would disagree with the premise that the widespread distribution of misinformation AND conflicting information has had a detrimental impact on messaging during the COVID pandemic. This has led to distrust, hesitancy, and active efforts to undermine sources.

Furthermore, this is the first pandemic where social media and other digital platforms have been leveraged as a major driver of information. This leads to individuals being required to filter information through their own understandings, research, and even biases. It’s no easy task for most people. 

In 2021, Vice Admiral Vivek H. Murthy, M.D., M.B.A., U.S. Surgeon General developed a comprehensive, 22-page, advisory that explores misinformation related to the COVID-19 pandemic and provides guidance on combating it. The document lifts up recommendations for entities such as schools, news media, digital platforms, governments and individuals to combat misinformation. 

The advisory will serve as the foundation for this short case study as we explore the distribution of misinformation and ways your organization can be a source of accuracy.

Defining Misinformation

Perhaps the largest golden nugget in the entire document is tucked away as a footnote in the references section. It states:

“Defining “misinformation” is a challenging task, and any definition has limitations. One key issue is whether there can be an objective benchmark for whether something qualifies as misinformation. Some researchers argue that for something to be considered misinformation, it has to go against “scientific consensus”. Others consider misinformation to be information that is contrary to the “best available evidence”.”

“It is important to be careful and avoid conflating controversial or unorthodox claims with misinformation.”

“A second key issue is whether misinformation should include not only false information but also misleading information.”

Clearly, there are inherent challenges with defining ‘misinformation’ and determining what qualifies. 

In the advisory, Dr. Murthy defines misinformation as “information that is false, inaccurate, or misleading according to the best available evidence at the time.” He goes on to conclude “Misinformation has caused confusion and led people to decline COVID-19 vaccines, reject public health measures such as masking and physical distancing, and use unproven treatments.”

There is one piece missing in this statement and throughout the advisory. That is – accurate information (the antithesis of misinformation) is also not so easy to define. In fact, it is often so that two pieces of information that appear to conflict may both be accurate. 

For instance: ‘vaccines are safe’. This has been lifted up by respected health professionals worldwide and seems to be true for the vast majority of people. However, some people are experiencing harmful side effects. These are legitimized in the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) vaccine information fact sheet.

How can both of these be true since they conflict? The vast majority experience very mild side effects within days of receiving the vaccine and the vaccine helps protect them against dangerous symptoms associated with COVID-19. At the same time, pages 4 and 5 of the FDA’s fact sheet detail severe possible side effects including allergic reactions, myocarditis, and pericarditis.

It further states: “These may not be all the possible side effects of the vaccine. Serious and unexpected side effects may occur. The possible side effects of the vaccine are still being studied in clinical trials.”

Clearly, both can be true. However, there are efforts to downgrade the efficacy of the vaccine, and counter-efforts to dilute the risk of side effects. Too often, these efforts are led by elected leaders and those in our health organizations – people we rely on to guide us through the pandemic. These efforts to mislead are driven by personal bias and done in an effort to influence the mass population. Very little is being done to provide “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.”

Misinformation vs Information I Don’t Agree With

Rather than delineate between misinformation and accurate information, perhaps it’s more appropriate to frame this conversation by considering misinformation versus information I don’t agree with.

The term “fake news” has been widely used and doesn’t have a definitive or widely accepted meaning. To some, fake news represents reporting that is factually incorrect. For others, it represents reporting that may have nuggets of truth but is misleading. For others, it may be that fact is irrelevant and it’s moreso a biased disagreement with the premise of the reporting (I don’t agree).

Merriam-Webster defines ‘fake’ as “not true, real, or genuine,” and ‘news’ as “a report of recent events.” So a fair definition of ‘fake news’ could be ‘A report of recent events that is not true, real, or genuine.”

Seems clear right? Well, not so much.

Essentially, the three considerations of fake news above are all accurate. Fake news can be reporting:

  1. That is factually incorrect. 
  2. That is misleading. 
  3. I disagree with.

Through the COVID-19 pandemic, many people have taken sides (pro-vaccine v anti-vaccine) and sought information they agree with and disregard information that does not align with their bias. Furthermore, they leverage social media and other mass communication platforms to further amplify their bias. 

Too few people in prominent roles have made efforts to provide accurate information void of bias and allow people to make decisions that are best for them. Those that do are drowned out by the other factions.

So, what can we learn from this? 

First, we should understand that ‘fake news’ is fake. It doesn’t exist. If it’s actual news, it’s not fake. ‘Fake information’ is real. ‘Fake news’ is not.

Second, as responsible organizations, we must make efforts to be the sources of accurate information. We must refrain from spin and tread very carefully in social media. 

Additional guidance is provided later for organizations to be drivers of accurate information and confront misinformation.

Government Mistrust

There are two inherent truths that will always exist when an effort is led or driven by government:

  1. It will be inefficient
  2. It will lack trust

The COVID-19 pandemic has amplified these truths as well as any other issue in recent history. 

Trust in government often is based on political party affiliation. People tend to trust those they voted for more than they trust those from the opposing political party. The Pew Research Center provides clear data on this reality. 

On April 12, 2020 when President Trump was in office, 37% of conservative republicans had trust in the government, but only 8% of liberal democrats agreed. Just one year later with President Biden in office, the number flipped with 31% of liberal democrats having trust in government and only 5% of conservative republicans.

This alignment to party leaders also filters to other factions of the government.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, leading health organizations – specifically the World Health Organization (WHO), Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and Food and Drug Administration (FDA) – were believed by much of the public to be biased and politically-driven. True or not, perception impacted their ability to effectively communicate and influence.

According to a survey by WebMD of nearly 2,200 of their readers in the U.S. between May 26 and June 1, “44% said their trust in the CDC had decreased during the pandemic, and 33% said their trust in the FDA had decreased.”

Even more alarming, the same story claims “out of nearly 2,000 U.S. nurses surveyed on Medscape (WebMD’s sister site for health care professionals) between May 25 and June 3, 77% said their trust in the CDC has decreased since the start of the pandemic, and 51% said their trust in the FDA has decreased. Similarly, out of nearly 450 U.S. doctors surveyed in the same time period, 77% said their trust in the CDC has decreased and 48% said their trust in the FDA has decreased.”

This data is real, unbiased, and alarming. How did we get here? It seems clear the inconsistency of information from health organizations and political leaders has eroded trust  – seemingly beyond repair.

U.S. News and World Report dove into the matter and noted, “Since the start of the pandemic, the public has been barraged by conflicting messages in part because the country is dealing with a new and still poorly understood virus and in part because politicians and scientists deliver conflicting advice. But rumors, misinformation and outright falsehoods — some intentionally propagated — have also flourished in that cauldron of confusion.”Political and health leaders have not been helped by powerful digital media campaigns aimed at influencing rather than informing, but they have made enough missteps themselves to earn ownership for their mistrust.

Takeaways for Your Organization

Fortunately, the missteps by our political institutions and elected leaders and rampant spread of misinformation provides you with an opportunity. From them, there are several takeaways to position your organization as a source of reliable and accurate information. Not just related to COVID-19 – but anytime.

No matter your field of work, incorporate the strategies below to ensure your organization is seen as a trusted and valued source of accurate information:

Leverage Your Pros

Your organization hires professionals that align to your field of work. Whether you employ educators, accountants, customer service reps, flight crews, researchers, or any other professional, leverage them in your communication efforts.

Your website and associated messaging platforms should be a comprehensive source of accurate information and resources credited to your professionals and your organization.

Beyond web content, leverage podcasts, video, white papers, and local media to lift up your professionals and develop multiple avenues to disseminate their expertise.

Don’t Give Reason to Mistrust

Bias exists in everybody. But your organization must operate from a neutral position. Don’t intentionally or unintentionally align yourself with a political party, elected leader, or political point of view. Don’t become embroiled in controversial topics in which there will be no productive dialog or room for growth. Most importantly, don’t leverage your platforms to distribute inaccurate, incomplete, or blatantly biased materials. Don’t spin.

Your primary objective is to earn – and maintain – trust with your stakeholders. Don’t give them a reason to lose trust. Stick to your organization’s purpose and mission. Don’t allow individuals to become embroiled in politically-driven division on topics if it is not the role of your organization. 

Instead, maintain your status as a source of uncompromised truth and accuracy.

Create - Don’t Duplicate

Rather than leveraging resources from entities that may not exude the same trust that your organization wishes to portray (ie. government), create your own.

During COVID, many organizations pointed to the directions of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for guidance, information and resources. Unfortunately, as we explored earlier, trust in the CDC became significantly eroded by the general public and health professionals.

Use your organization’s professionals to create your own content. If you have anybody whose status or standing may be compromised for any reason, don’t leverage them to deliver messaging. Use a credible source to deliver information – including those who may not be directly associated such as a respected community leader, a customer/client, or local business owner.

Don’t Feed the Social Media Wildlife

Too many social media users fly in, give their two cents (which is usually two cents more than its value) and fly away. Their intent is not to receive information or engage in dialog. Their intent is singular and it’s not in your interest or that of your important stakeholders. Let them be.

Understand what social media is. It’s a place where anybody and everybody can say just about anything without repercussions. Its inherent anonymity fuels courage to behave in ways that contrast with societal norms. It’s also an environment where every account isn’t necessarily tied to an actual human. Digital bots roam the social media countryside leaving in their wake pastures of misinformation in an effort to deceive and provide perceived value where it shouldn’t exist. 

A post with hundreds of likes or comments may initially appear as a widely-accepted piece of information or at least a source that is being vetted by the crowd. In reality, many (or most) of those engagements may be the work of bots attempting to lend credence to partisan or dangerous points of view.

Leverage social media in ways that lift up your expertise. But don’t engage with those who intend to create disruption or cause harm.

Conclusion

The COVID-19 pandemic has taught us many lessons about misinformation and the dangers it creates. Your organization should always aim to be the source of accurate information while identifying and confronting misinformation. 

Ultimately, you will benefit through increased trust and organizational success. Failure to remain above the fray, and the associated dangers of politicization, will result in distrust by stakeholders that may become impossible to overcome.

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