At the start of this global pandemic, the COVID-19 outbreak (also known as Coronavirus) was slow to pick up significant coverage in international media. In hindsight, a pivotal moment was missed to prepare and aggressively disseminate key messaging for international bodies to lead a cohesive, coordinated response. We now know the lethality rate of infected patients for COVID-19 is minimal compared to high-risk diseases such as Ebola. However, the global reach of COVID-19, due in part to the lack of attention and informative messaging, has made this outbreak more deadly than the most recent Ebola outbreak. In the initial alarm surrounding the rapid rate of contact spread, a massive (and to date, uncontrolled) infodemic was born.
In an information surge at the level currently surrounding COVID-19, the ability to access and share relevant content without validation or verification has created key messaging problems for public health and government officials globally. In the information age, fact-based content has been largely overshadowed by sensationalized headlines to garner attention. Often referred to as “clickbait”, this technique is not new, or even limited to online audiences. Misinformation spreads in the same manner as a viral disease – conversations in small communities serve as epicenters for the transmission of bad information – and an infodemic germinates. As these communities grow in size, so does the infodemic.
These community conversations will be the most significant factor in combating misinformation in this pandemic, much as they were in the Ebola epidemic. This obstacle was addressed in the media analytics approach Novetta has used in both the West African and Congolese Ebola outbreaks over the last decade. Our analysis provided impactful insight to guide public health response in the most challenging of environments. Novetta has the ability to process and codify massive amounts of data in real-time, across open-source media (e.g, radio, television, traditional print media, and social media) using machine learning and human curation. Leveraging these tools, analysts are able to provide actionable points of counter-messaging for public health organizations and their communication teams.
Novetta’s media analysis techniques are unique compared to other analytic firms in the misinformation space. In a time when resources need to be expertly allocated, blanket communication efforts are not cost-effective practices for the duration of the outbreak. While identifying the source of misinformation is crucial, Novetta has found that it is more effective to define the communities in which rumors have received the highest level of traction and are likely to be most susceptible to inaccurate content in the future. Focused and targeted messaging in key communities identified by a thorough examination of misinformation trends are crucial in allocating these scarce resources.
During Novetta’s work supporting public health officials in the Congolese Ebola outbreak, Novetta identified an interesting shift in communication patterns.
Initially people were receiving information via public social media pages, but over time, communication switched to private WhatsApp channels, containing community-based conversations regarding all topics of concern for a specific locality within emerging hot zones. This served as a key obstacle for combating misinformation during the outbreak as public health officials were less capable of tracking rumors via WhatsApp, nor were they able to promote healthcare messaging effectively in a primary source of news and information for many communities. In small rural populations that were isolated from other information sources due to limited radio coverage and reduced mobility, the one or two individuals that escaped this information vacuum and had a cell phone with WhatsApp access became crucial entry points for Ebola-related content.
The information that is shared in these channels is rife with misinformation and these medically untrained individuals with WhatsApp access then serve as content filters, deciding what to share with other community members. Moreover, these voices become increasingly important to the communities and are regarded with high levels of trust. While this is concerning in developing nations with limited access to healthcare facilities, what is of higher concern is this community-based information dissemination model has been expressed in the same way in the COVID-19 outbreak, but on a global scale.
Misinformation is driving confusion and misappropriating blame across all aspects of the COVID-19 outbreak and response effort. Social media platforms are being particularly targeted, as usual, for allowing inaccurate information to be posted and shared. This serves as an instigator for promoting – intentionally or inadvertently – poor practices for mitigating the spread of the disease and for overall public safety. However, the limitation of public social media platforms is not the solution, as was evidenced in the DRC. The outcry against social media providing platforms for misinformation in the Congo led to a transition underground to private channels. The same conversations and inaccurate content were taking place, however now they were hidden from the public officials that could counterbalance the messaging.
In the “misinformation age”, misinformation on social media can be seen as a vital source of data. It provides key insights for information campaigns, enabling the ability to locate information gaps as well as high-density regions and networks that are propagating inaccuracies. Identifying these misinformation strongholds allows for the allocation of limited resources from public health agencies to target specific topics with timeliness and promote directly in the communities that are likely to be most affected. In other words, let the rumors work for you. Rather than attacking the rumor and the individuals holding that belief, present accurate information side-by-side from trusted individuals in those communities to allow for discourse to fill information gaps.
What our experience with WhatsApp has shown us is that the most important factor in combating misinformation comes down to the ability to quickly identify, process, and adapt messaging to developing rumors. Rigid and tone-deaf messaging disseminated on repeat by international bodies – who are often not trusted by those most affected – does not adequately address the concerns of the public and their evolving view of the outbreak. Though preventative practice messaging presented by top-level health officials down to authorities in the local communities has proven to be effective, it does not address the “clickbait” nature of rumors and self-remedies that have adapted messages to prey on the fears and biases of online audiences. More importantly, the level of development of national, regional, and local healthcare infrastructure does not seem to readily impact the receptiveness of community audiences to misinformation. It can not be assumed that a tier one healthcare system and infrastructure produce a well-informed public that is immune to this infodemic. Misinformation will impact the public regardless of a nation’s preparedness to respond to the pandemic itself.
In our experience monitoring discourse about the recent DRC Ebola epidemic, rumors and misinformation constantly changed and resurfaced through all the twists and turns of the outbreak. This included announcements of fake vaccines, using saltwater tablets to cure Ebola, and even President Tshisekedi using the outbreak as a political ploy to consolidate power and impact the recent elections.
Related rumors in the current Coronavirus outbreak have swept social media globally, infiltrated major media outlets, and most importantly become topics of community conversations. The longer these rumors persist, the more likely they are to be seen as truthful and factual. Facing this infodemic demands rapid identification of rumors and misinformation and adaptive, targeted messaging to deliver a clear and accurate message through the noise.