Elena Savoia is a senior researcher in the Department of Biostatistics at Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health (HSPH). She is Deputy Director of the Emergency Preparedness, Research, Evaluation and Practice (EPREP) Program and co-founder of the IRIS Coalition. She recently co-led a workshop for public health practitioners at the Global Health Security conference in Singapore on addressing misinformation and disinformation in emergency risk communication.
HSPH: What are the EPREP workshops on emergency risk communication like and what do you hope participants take away?
Savoy: Our workshops are aimed at public health personnel at various levels, including local and state public health departments, or public health departments in other countries. They are very hands-on. We walk participants through a simulation exercise, gradually adding more information over the course of approximately three hours. At the recent workshop in Singapore, participants responded to a scenario involving fictional social media posts questioning the safety of the COVID vaccine in children. The goal was for them to leave with priorities for action they can take to improve their emergency communication plans.
During the simulation, the first thing participants wanted to do was check the facts. You shouldn’t assume something is misinformation. You need to see if there is any data supporting or substantiating that particular information. Second, they focused on listening to the audience and trying to understand which segments are the most affected. Finally, they wanted to identify people within these communities who could be effective in reaching members of the public who distrust the government.
HSPH: You suggested that practitioners should “prebunk” misinformation rather than just trying to debunk it when it’s already out there. Why is this, and what does it imply?
Savoy: Debunking doesn’t seem to work because there’s just too much information on social media and elsewhere on the internet. It would be very difficult for an agency to try to demystify all the disinformation out there – or even reach the people spreading it, given the information echo chambers that exist. You end up debunking misinformation for people who already don’t believe it.
The idea of “prebunking” is to educate people against misinformation. Rather than trying to convince someone not to believe something, you talk about common patterns in misinformation posts and videos and the industry that exists to make money from it, for example, by selling a fraudulent cure for COVID-19. You alert people to certain techniques that creators use to manipulate emotions, such as creepy music or tone of voice in videos, and narratives centered on “corrupt elites” or harming children. You give people the tools to help them critically evaluate what they see or hear.
Building trust with the audience is essential for effective communication. Public health practitioners must listen to people and value their emotional experiences and concerns. Otherwise, you can end up pushing people away and increasing polarization.
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