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How not to spread misinformation

How not to spread misinformation

Be transparent, but don't highlight bad actors or misinformation or you risk provoking it further

Christy Clemence
Christy Clemence

Recommendation: Don’t directly address misinformation and bad actors - it publicizes them and can lead to an increase in similar behavior. Be transparent and don’t shy away from important topics, but carefully consider what you are turning peoples’ attention to.


The issue with misinformation

Misinformation is not unique to the coronavirus pandemic. We have seen evidence of its prevalence and consequences across the world. However, given the pain, uncertainty and scale of the coronavirus, there has been a surge of misinformation abounding, and not just from our elected officials.

When people are concerned about perceived threats, their ability to process information effectively can become severely impaired leaving them more susceptible to the traps of misinformation.

Don’t repeat misinformation

Why avoid discussing the particulars of misinformation? Simply put, because you may be helping it to spread. As this article notes, two experiments in Brazil found that providing corrective information not only failed to lessen common misconceptions about Zika, but actually reduced levels of confidence in other beliefs about the virus, both accurate and inaccurate.

So how to tackle this issue? Firstly, focus on its root cause. Claire Wardle of First Draft, an organisation that helps journalists tackle online misinformation told the BBC that fear is one of the biggest drivers that allows misinformation to thrive. By appreciating this, you can then speak to peoples’ fear, calmly reduce uncertainty and prevent an information void in which further misinformation can spread.

Think before sharing - Image created by Israel Bezerra.

Secondly, focus on empowering people to recognize misinformation themselves, rather than attempt to address and rebuff each individual piece. Misinformation is often spread by people who aren’t being intentionally malicious: instead they believe they are passing on actual facts, or sharing dubious information "just in case" it is true. Point people to good ‘recognising misinformation’ resources such as this article, and remind them to cross check coronavirus advice with trusted institutions such as the World Health Organization before sharing.

Seven ways to stop bad information
Experts are calling on the public to practise ‘information hygiene’ to help stop the spread of falsehoods online.

And if addressing misinformation is unavoidable, ensure it’s done well. Experts say posts by previous coronavirus deniers may be more useful in combating conspiracies than news articles and fact checks. As Claire Milne of Full Fact, a UK-based fact checking organization commented:

One of the most effective ways of trying to correct the record is by getting the person who made the original claim to do it themselves.

Don’t highlight bad actors

Similarly, it is important also to recognize that highlighting rule breaking can also have negative effects on behavior. In a 2010 study, providing information about low participation in cancer screening actually reduced the intention of members of the public to take up screening opportunities compared to control groups. So although they make for compelling reading, it is not advisable to share stories about wild, congested pool parties or rule breaking government advisors with your audience. It could encourage copycat behavior or an apathetic  'why should I bother' attitude that leads to worse adherence to your directives.

Follow reliable sources of information like the WHO. Image created by Rawpixel Images.

Communicating transparently

Conversely, a key line of defence against the spread of misinformation is to increase the credibility of your own, factually correct information, reducing fear in the process. To do this, prioritise clarity and transparency in all of your communications.

We recommend:

  • updating your information by posting a version number on every guidance document including date and time stamping information
  • summarizing revisions to communications and guidance in bullets, clearly outlining changes made
  • clearly addressing what your previous advice was, what it is now and why. This  enables people to understand the basis for your updated information and increases your credibility
  • where possible, letting people know about upcoming changes to guidance or directives in advance so they have time to adjust. See our post on anticipatory guidance to understand this further

Furthermore, don’t be afraid to show your workings. Make sure that facts informing your decisions are accessible so that people can understand for themselves where you are building your assertions from, particularly those that they may find restrictive.

‘There is no absolute truth’: an infectious disease expert on Covid-19, misinformation and ‘bullshit’
Carl Bergstrom’s two disparate areas of expertise merged as reports of a mysterious respiratory illness emerged in January

Ensure that these data are provided in context - that you're not cherry-picking figures - and that you stress that scientific studies are provisional and the results are liable to change and be updated, especially as this is a fast-moving situation. This way you keep your audience's trust when information is updated or guidance changed, and prevent yourself falling into hyperpartisanship or accidental misinformation.

Finally, be clear and honest about uncertainty. Don’t shy away from sharing dilemmas, so people can appreciate the pros and cons of difficult decisions. Share what information is still unknown and despite the impulse to the alternative, don’t shy away from communicating bad news - to avoid doing so builds distrust. As this Harvard Business Review article notes:

Hiding bad news is virtually a reflex in most organizations, but thoughtful leaders recognize that speaking up early and truthfully is a vital strategy in a fast-moving crisis.

The last word

Don’t go head-to-head with misinformation trying to rebuff every rumor or deceptive piece of information. You will sometimes get it right, you may also get it wrong, but it is still better to be as transparent as you can - focussing on sharing the most up to date information, and ensuring that you leave no void for misinformation to seep into.

Resources

Covid-19: how do we encourage the right behaviours during an epidemic?
It’s only February but here at BIT we think we have a strong contender for word of the year (take…
Don’t Hide Bad News in Times of Crisis
Transparency is crucial — even if your reputation takes a short-term hit.
SARS communication: What Singapore is doing right (Full, unpublished version) (Peter M. Sandman website)
SARS communication: What Singapore is doing right (Full, unpublished version) (Peter M. Sandman website)
The human cost of virus misinformation
A BBC team tracking coronavirus misinformation has found links to assaults, arson and deaths - and the potential for even greater indirect harm.
Full Fact - Full Fact is the UK’s independent fact checking organisation
Full Fact is the UK’s independent fact checking organisation
Risk Communication, the West Nile Virus Epidemic, and Bioterrorism: Responding to the Communication Challenges Posed by the Intentional or Unintentional Release of a Pathogen in an Urban Setting - PubMed
The intentional or unintentional introduction of a pathogen in an urban setting presents severe communication challenges. Risk communication--a science-based approach for communicating effectively in high-concern situations--provides a set of principles and tools for meeting those challenges. A brie…
Effective ‘Anticipatory Guidance’ in Coronavirus Communication
Prepare your audience for what is to come.