Leveraging social media influencers to blunt the COVID-19 ‘infodemic’ curve
Misinformation, disinformation and too much information about the coronavirus have run rampant across social media platforms, adding to the challenges governments and health professionals face in providing communities with accurate, life-saving information.
Mistrust of local, state and national officials has also hampered authorities’ ability in some cases to persuade the public to heed warnings and adhere to guidelines.
“With the coronavirus outbreak, we are seeing the largest infodemic — meaning sharing of bad information — than we’ve ever seen before,” Mary Markovinovic, an adjunct faculty member who lectures on media relations, crisis communications and new media at the Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies (DKI-APCSS) and, said during a DKI-APCSS webinar on the COVID-19 infodemic. “Posts with seemingly helpful information are shared by well-meaning family members. But this is the Wild West of the internet, and even information that makes no sense at all has gained traction.”
Those generating and sharing bad information include conspiracy theorists, extremists and the willfully ignorant, Markovinovic said, who also serves as chief of public affairs at DKI-APCSS. People are so desperate for answers that they are often willing to believe the absurd, she added. Here’s how Markovinovic breaks down who perpetuates misinformation and why:
- The well-meaning misinformed: People who find information that is somewhat believable and share it, thinking that they are doing a public service.
- The trolls: People who enjoy creating chaos and watching it spread. Trolls are made up of opportunists, the vengeful, the spiteful and juvenile delinquents.
- The profiteers: People who make money off misinformation — either by creating misinformation (YouTube) where they profit off clicks or views or by creating false fundraising campaigns.
- The conspiracy theorists/extremists: Usually working off an extreme political agenda. For example, the Michigan “back to work” protest held in April 2020 was really about gun rights versus coronavirus.
- The willfully ignorant: People who share information based on feelings rather than truth. They will share something viral that is not true if it supports their feelings about a topic.
- Deliberate disinformation activities: Created by state and nonstate actors with the goal of destabilizing the government or people’s faith in their governments or partners and allies. Extremists operate in this realm.
- The desperate: People who are looking for simple solutions for a complex problem in our complex world.
Fighting such posts requires a robust crisis communication program that includes strong, believable messages and clear sources of information such as websites and hotlines, Markovinovic said.
To combat misinformation and blunt the infodemic curve, Markovinovic also suggests that governments and public health officials partner with social media influencers who have mass appeal. These influencers have earned the public trust and could be used as a conduit to deliver important government and public health messages.
“It comes down to who does your audience trust, and how do they want to receive the information,” Markovinovic told FORUM. “Leadership must be upfront, but what happens if that leadership is not trusted? Also, what if the leadership is not on the right communications channels for that audience? Then, it’s a matter of finding champions for your message who are on those channels and are respected by that audience.”
Traditional media, such as newspapers, should also be considered as partners, Markovinovic said. Their reporters have developed a rapport with the communities they cover and gained their readers’ trust. Traditional newspapers also employ fact checkers for legal reasons to ensure the information they deliver is true and accurate.