Communicating COVID-19 one year on
What public health experts can learn from combating climate change misinformation
One year ago the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 a pandemic.
March 11, 2020.
In the year that followed the world has seen unprecedented impacts in all domains of daily life. The global death toll stands at 2,625,132 officially recorded fatalities, with more than 118 million recorded cases worldwide. The true numbers are likely much higher.
And, the United States leads the world in this grim tally with more than 29 million cases recorded, and 530,179 deaths, as of this writing.
2,625,132 dead. Each of these losses marks family and friends that will never again hug their loved ones or experience any of the minutiae of daily life together, something as simple as a shared smile.
World Health Organization (WHO) @WHO🚨 BREAKING 🚨 "We have therefore made the assessment that #COVID19 can be characterized as a pandemic"-@DrTedros #coronavirus https://t.co/JqdsM2051A
Much is being said elsewhere on this dreadful milestone which seemed to many of us, myself included, almost unimaginable one year ago. I will not undertake to replicate such extended commentary here. Rather, I devote this week’s newsletter providing resources for combating misinformation and communicating public health messaging on the coronavirus pandemic.
Debunking COVID-19 misinformation
By this point scientists, journalists and others have devoted plenty of ink to lessons, and pitfalls, that confronting climate change can lend to public health messaging on COVID-19, as well as how the pandemic might impact the trajectory of global greenhouse gas emissions.
“‘Ideology is a big predictor of people’s attitudes about climate change, but tribalism is even more so,’ he said. ‘Ultimately humans are social animals. If my tribe believes that climate change is a hoax, I’m much more likely to believe that. And that’s definitely also at play with Covid.’”
Recent research shows that misinformation—and disinformation—about COVID-19 and vaccines on social media, and in traditional media, is a major problem. The WHO has gone so far as to declare an parallel “infodemic” of misinformation, and outright disinformation, in relation to the coronavirus pandemic.
The spread of misinformation about COVID-19 on social media has real public health consequences. Washington State University doctoral candidate Yan Su analyzed data from the 2020 American National Election Studies Exploratory Testing Survey conducted early in the pandemic, finding that social media usage was related to “misinformation beliefs” about COVID-19, as well as worry about the virus.
As Su told ScienceDaily:
“‘It seems that the more you use social media, the more likely you become worried about COVID-19, perhaps because there is a lot of unfounded and conspiracy theories on social media,’ Su said. ‘Then this in turn can trigger a higher level of worry which leads to further belief in misinformation.’”
Social psychology research into using inoculation messages, or “prebunking,” to highlight climate myths and preemptively refute counterarguments is effective to counter disinformation campaigns in a polarized political landscape (read on climate change and more recently COVID-19).
There is an urgent need to debunk vaccine misinformation in particular. Similarly to emphasizing the scientific consensus on climate change, what scholars term “consensus messaging,” according to social psychologist Sander van der Linden (University of Cambridge) and colleagues in EClinicalMedicine, “emphasizing the medical consensus about vaccine safety has been found to decrease safety concerns and increase public support for vaccines.”
An international team of leading scholars of misinformation published the Debunking Handbook 2020 in October. The handbook summarizes best practices for debunking climate change misinformation, which can similarly be applied to misinformation about the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and the vaccine rollout.
Disinformation, defined by the researchers as a subcategory of misinformation, which is “deliberately disseminated to mislead.” Because misinformation is “sticky,” in other words even once corrected it continues to influence an individual’s thinking, the best way to deal with it is to preempt false and misleading information in the first place.
Furthermore, it is important to unpack false claims. As the Debunking Handbook authors write:
“Rather than only stating that misinformation is false, it is beneficial to provide details as to why. Explain (1) why the mistaken information was thought to be correct in the first place and (2) why it is now clear it is wrong and (3) why the alternative is correct… It is important for people to see the inconsistency in order to resolve it.”
For a summary of the debunking process, refer to this nifty graphic from the handbook. Enjoy! ⬇️
For more on ways to reduce the spread of misinformation about COVID-19, see:
Abrams, Z. (2021, March 1). American Psychological Association (APA). “Controlling the spread of misinformation: Psychologists’ research on misinformation may help in the fight to debunk myths surrounding COVID-19.”
Eschner, K. (2021, Feb. 12). New York Times. “Get Wise to Covid Rumors.”
First Draft News. (n.d.). “Vaccines and misinformation: Get the support you need.”
Vraga, E. and Bode, L. (2021, Feb.). CDC Emerging Infectious Diseases.“Addressing COVID-19 misinformation on social media preemptively and responsively.” [Peer-reviewed]
“Evidence communication” on COVID-19
Board members and scholars affiliated with the Winton Centre for Risk and Evidence Communication at the University of Cambridge published a commentary in Nature in November on “Five Rules for Evidence Communication.”
Based on an international study of coronavirus risk perceptions and communication messaging, the University of Cambridge Winton Centre researchers highlight how “sensitive people are to the aims and interests of communicators.”
The researchers recommend a focus on informing, rather than persuasion, presenting the full range of evidence in relation what is known at the time (what in climate change communication is called “weight-of-evidence” reporting), prebunking against misinformation and being clear about the areas of scientific uncertainty.
They propose taking what they term an “evidence communication” approach to communicating scientific uncertainties. Among their tips for evidence-based communication:
“Address all the questions and concerns of the target audience.”
“Don’t cherry-pick findings.”
“Present potential benefits and possible harms in the same way so that they can be compared fairly.”
“When you don’t know, say so; say what you are going to do to find out, and by when.”
“Highlight the quality and relevance of the underlying evidence (for example, describe the data set).”
What can climate change advocates learn from the pandemic?
Another area of growing scholarship and commentary is on what lessons the climate science community and policymakers might learn from the COVID-19 pandemic. A Google Scholar search for the key words ["climate change" "COVID-19" lessons] since 2020 returned 15,400 results.
A few highlights:
François Gemenne (University of Liege) and Anneliese Depoux (Paris-Sorbonne University) in Environmental Research Letters, “What our response to the COVID-19 pandemic tells us of our capacity to respond to climate change”:
“Though the COVID-19 crisis is far from being [over] however, we believe it is possible to take away some important, albeit preliminary, lessons for climate action and communication: the need to focus more on the immediate and near consequences of climate change, to highlight its impacts on human health, and to no longer describe climate change as a ‘crisis’. For these reasons, we should not assume that the measures deployed against the pandemic can be replicated as such to fight climate change. Despite their similarities, climate change will require different solutions. But the coronavirus crisis tells us it is possible to take urgent, costly and radical measures, and gives some hints as to how these can be accepted by the population.”
Mario Herrero (CSIRO, Australia) and Philip Thornton (CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change Agriculture and Food Security, International Livestock Research Institute, Kenya) in The Lancet Planetary Health, “What can COVID-19 teach us about responding to climate change?”:
“As of April 22, 2020, the amount allocated by governments globally to these measures is US$8·4 trillion… The major lesson we take from this investment is that behavioural responses to global challenges can be both massive and rapid, which applies equally to the general citizenry and to governments. Even if not perfect, and with losses of lives, jobs, and businesses, the speed and scale of resource mobilisation and development of safety nets shows that with sufficient determination, major changes can be accomplished very quickly.”
Candice Howarth (London School of Economics and Political Science) et al. in Environmental and Resource Economics, “Building a Social Mandate for Climate Action: Lessons from COVID-19”:
“We argue that a rapid zero-carbon transition is possible, and that with the right policies some of the behaviour changes that the lockdown has imposed might be sustained. However, such a transformation needs to be underpinned by a clear social mandate and public support, and it needs to be well planned to avoid the disruptive effects of COVID-19. By a social mandate, we refer to a situation where society offers support to another actor (e.g. government) to take action to protect our collective well-being, with the processes and the outcomes of this action being broadly accepted as being legitimate.”
If you are interested in more discussion on the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine is holding a webinar Thursday, March 18, 3 to 4 p.m. eastern time on “Climate Conversations: Climate and COVID-19.” Find out more and register here.
Hope as a new year begins…
As I was walking my baby to daycare this morning I saw a father walking his son to a neighborhood school along our route. Seeing the boy leave his father and run past the wooden barricades up the steps into the school with his backpack (and face mask) seemed both ordinary and extraordinary.
Getting children back into in-person learning both highlights the high toll what we have lost as a society in the past year, the impacts of which will be felt for years to come. But it also represents hope for what is to come as we look towards the year that is beginning.