How to fight back against public health mis- and disinformation

One of the lasting lessons of the COVID-19 pandemic is the insidious and corrosive power of mis- and disinformation to undermine public health efforts.

On the website for its COVID-19 Health Communication Playbook, MITRE offered just a few examples of the online epithets that bombard credulous social media users:

From masks to quack remedies to vaccination, the past two years have been a constant swirl of damaging untruths, perpetrated across traditional and social media. These have proven hugely challenging for providers, public health agencies and policymakers trying to communicate critical information to help citizens stay healthy.

Worse, falsehoods and inaccurate information often most disproportionately affect underserved populations and other historically marginalized groups that might be most vulnerable to COVID-19.

So in 2021, MITRE scientists worked together to create the COVID-19 Health Communication Playbook to help healthcare organizations fight back against misinformation and vaccine hesitancy.

At HIMSS22 this month, in her session “Countering Disinformation to Build Trust in Public Health,” Denise Scannell, chief strategist for health communication at MITRE, will explain more about the playbook – which features best practices for monitoring and countering vaccine-related falsehoods.

She spoke with Healthcare IT News about those efforts and others to combat public health misinformation.

Q. Obviously, we’re living in a time where misinformation and disinformation are severely adversely affecting public health. What has MITRE been doing to help address that? And are you confident that we can improve things as we go forward?

A. Mis- and disinformation is not a new thing. I personally, as a social and behavioral scientist, have been studying it since before social media.

What has changed is the information environment. We get more information now than we have ever gotten before. We’re being bombarded with information on a daily basis.

And secondly, at least in the studies that I’ve read as a behavioral scientist, our attention span is going down. That window for us to get accurate information is getting smaller and smaller.

Add to that the plethora of mis- and disinformation that we have recently seen, which I think is really what put it on into the central conversation. We really started to see this become a critical public safety issue because we were dealing with a critical public health crisis.

But it has been impacting our health behavior for a number of years. And so one of the things that we’re going to be talking about at HIMSS is not only the environment itself, the healthy information environment, and what that could look like, how we consume information, how information is constructed – and how that impacts our decision making and our health behaviors and our health outcomes.

Specifically, the research that we actually started in 2019, looking at the persuasive nature of mis- and disinformation. That research led to the development of a framework which I’m going to talk about in my presentation on the floor, which is a counter response framework.

It marries social listening, which we’ve been doing for a long time with behavioral science. We call the framework HIPE: Health Information Persuasion Exploration.

It not only looks at the detection of disinformation, but also how people are exposed to and affected by misinformation, and how it varies across different groups and different sub-populations.

And from that framework, from that research, we also developed an AI algorithm which is based on the variable categorizations within our research. The whole point of it is to provide insights into the “why” behind mis- and disinformation.

And then we are going to close out with a new initiative, which I’m really excited about, which is our HIPE Explore Lab, which is going to take all this on-the-ground experience, research and subject matter expertise and provide an opportunity for collaboration and demonstration.

All those things are separate and distinct from this COVID-19 Health Communication Playbook that’s mentioned in the session description, or are they kind of under that umbrella.

When we developed the playbook, we were doing two things. We were working on the ground with different public health entities. But we also wanted to provide insights, really, to public health communicators. Because at that point, and continually, there’s a lot of burden there. So let’s try to release some of the burden and provide them with some best practices for how to communicate on the ground.

So the playbook really taps into that uniqueness of populations within large geographic areas and provides public health communicators with the insights they need to address it. But the HIPE Explore Lab takes it to the next level, and really provides those insights to understand what is impacting your local community, their health behavior, their decision-making and their health outcomes.

Q. The people who could most benefit from all this work on countering healthcare misinformation are often the very same people who are most susceptible to believing it in the first place. How do you manage that challenge?

A. That’s a really good question. Part of the way of addressing this in the environment we’re in is not just addressing specific narratives as they arise, but building resiliency within these communities.

There’s a very large group of folks with low health literacy. And people with low health literacy have a tendency to be more susceptible to mis- and disinformation, as you mention. So how do you embed education, work with local communities so people understand what’s happening? That’s one of the things that we’re very interested in in terms of the future of this, and when we look to partner: How do we build resiliency?

One of the things that doesn’t exist today – but we’re looking at developing – is early warnings, so we can work with public health folks to inoculate against mis- and disinformation before it amplifies within the local community. That’s critical.

Q. Do you have an example of a success story?

A. We’ve partnered across the United States with different entities. One partnership was with Florida International University, working with the Haitian community there to increase vaccination rates.

That was a very successful case study, and a key element to that was active community interventions and working to build that resiliency within the community so that they were identifying mis- and disinformation as it was coming to them. We were also arming credible folks on the ground with ways of countering that information. And so we increased vaccination rates from close to zero when we started there to somewhere in the thousands.

Scannell’s HIMSS22 session, “Countering Disinformation to Build Trust in Public Health,” is scheduled for Tuesday, March 15, from 10:45-11:05 a.m. in the Federal Health Pavilion – Hall D, Booth 6679.

Twitter: @MikeMiliardHITN
Email the writer: [email protected]

Healthcare IT News is a HIMSS publication.

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