Disinformation is making it harder to tackle the coronavirus pandemic
COVID-19 is the first pandemic in the emerging 5G era. In today's rapid-fire online marketplace of ideas, conspiracy theorists, scammers, and anti-vaxxers put out false information that spreads more quickly than ever. Kathleen Hall Jamieson at the University of Pennsylvania calls this phenomenon "viral disinformation" or "VD." Like the sexually transmitted infections she names it after, VD spreads easily from person to person and both are bad for you. But what happens when this viral disinformation crashes into a real virus like COVID-19?
As Business Insider writes, one of the first major storylines is sadly predictable. Partisan squabbles and finger-pointing where one side of the polarized divide blames the government, and the other side says the media is scare-mongering. What all of this misses is the critical role digital information is playing as Prof. Jamieson's VD spreads undetected online much like COVID-19 is spreading offline around the world.
While there is much we still do not know, one thing is almost certain. COVID-19 is not going away anytime soon. Governments and the media have two of the most important roles in responding to this outbreak. But how the rest of society decides to communicate around COVID-19 will likely play just as decisive a role.
What companies and communities can do
If you are a public company , you have a duty to your employees, shareholders, and customers to think clearly and carefully about how you communicate about COVID-19. The CEO is said to be the new politician, and what she or he says carries similar weight.
Following the public health communications roadmap for pandemics works just as well for government authorities as it does for CEOs. That is tell people what you know. Tell them what you do not know. And tell them what you are doing about the unknown. Put forward public spokespeople who can calmly and clearly deliver these facts.
But it isn't just companies. Schools, universities, gyms, sports teams, and many other organizations have a duty to the people they bring together to follow the science, make evidence-based decisions, and communicate clearly to avoid spreading panic.
Already we're seeing many of these groups follow the recommendations of health officials by canceling or suspending season, sending students home, and discouraging large gatherings. These are wise choices.
What you can do
Perhaps most important, however, is the individual with an internet connection. Today's average person has more power than during any past pandemic outbreak. The question remains: will we use that power for good or will we become purveyors of online viral disinformation?
Two simple communications principles can help people with no background in public health ensure they are using their new power to help the world contain COVID-19. Think of these principles as akin to a thorough digital hand-washing.
First, before you forward, re-tweet, share, or like anything, slow down. Stop for a moment and consider the source. Did this come from your state's public health department, or from your uncle who isn't a doctor but has watched every episode of House?
If it does seem like a credible source, can you click back to the source's website? If it looks and feels like a legitimate news media outlet, but you've never actually heard of it, stop. An increasing trend in VD is to dress up fake news websites with all the digital trappings of a legitimate media outlet – a well-designed logo, a name that sounds serious, and lots of content – to make it look credible when in fact it isn't.
Second, do not just be a passive receiver of information. Go see for yourself.
Your tax dollars fund the most elite public health institution the world has ever known: the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They employ more than 15,000 of the most highly-regarded doctors, epidemiologists, and pandemic response experts.
Thankfully they also have an army of communications professionals to translate that expertise into advice and recommendations written comprehensibly and posted in numerous different languages on a website they update around the clock. Why take your uncle's advice when you have CDC working for you 24/7 one click away at CDC.gov?
These two principles – always checking the source and seeing for yourself – might sound simplistic. But, like hand washing, if we all take them to heart around online information, we will stand a much better chance of reducing the impact of COVID-19.
And when COVID-19 is in the rearview mirror, these same principles might also be able to start unwinding the great divide of polarization in our society. A polarization that is driven in large part by the unchecked spread of online VD.