Fighting Misinformation About a Novel Disease

Experts who studied the Zika epidemic discuss how to handle misinformation during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

A scanning electron microscope image of SARS-CoV-2 (in blue,) the virus that causes COVID-19.

Image credits: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases

Rights information: CC BY 2.0

Yuen Yiu, Staff Writer

(Inside Science) -- As the number of confirmed cases for COVID-19 continues to soar, so does the amount of information -- and misinformation -- about the disease. While some misinformation can be relatively benign, some has generated problems secondary to the pandemic such as xenophobia and hysteria.

While there are nuances in terms of how each piece of misinformation about the disease should be addressed, the overarching advice from communication experts is the same: Don’t spend too much time debunking myths.

Instead, it is most important to inform the public of basic preventive measures. In the case of COVID-19, that includes the importance of personal hygiene, social distancing and what symptoms necessitate self-isolation.

“We have something that’s new that is basically not treatable, and there is no vaccine,” said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, an expert on public policy and communication from the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. “So, it is incredibly important that people engage in protection.”

Communication challenges of a novel disease

The newness of a disease may make people less receptive to communications that seek to debunk misinformation, according to a recent paper published in Science Advances. Brendan Nyhan, a political scientist at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, and his colleagues found the Brazilian populace was less receptive to corrective information on Zika -- a disease new to the local populace during the 2015-2016 epidemic -- than on yellow fever, which the populace was more familiar with.

“During the early stages of Zika, scientists and doctors were still trying to understand the disease, so there was a real communication challenge in that context,” said Nyhan. “They often don't have definitive answers to the questions that people ask, and the science sometimes changes as it goes along, which may have harmed people’s trust in later information.”

In other words, the inherent uncertainty during the early days of a novel disease may hurt later efforts at dispelling misinformation about the disease as it becomes better understood.

Jamieson, who looked at the public perception of Zika in the U.S., suggests that communication efforts may have been difficult for the disease because it was transmittable via sexual intercourse in addition to via mosquitoes.

“There were debates about whether Zika should be labeled as an STD, which some health officials did not want to because they worry it may stigmatize those with the disease,” said Jamieson.

In comparison, COVID-19 has so far been shown to be transmitted in ways similar to seasonal flu, so “to some extent, this should be easier for public communication compared to Zika, because there's nothing new in what we're telling people to do. We just need them to do more of it,” said Jamieson.

“I elbow bump my students and my colleagues from October 1st through the end of April every year, and I’ve been doing that for 15 years,” she said. “It isn’t desirable to hang out with lots and lots of people during flu seasons, and it isn’t desirable to hang out with lots and lots of people when there’s COVID.”

However, the flu analogy can also be a double-edged sword, its downside swaying the public to not take COVID-19 as seriously as they should.

A serious situation for everyone

“The difference in the perception of the lethality to you and to others is a special element in this,” said Jamieson, referring to the reported lethality of COVID-19 for different age groups.

According to a Gallup poll, people in the U.S. have shown different levels of concern regarding the ongoing pandemic, with notable shifts by age groups and by political affiliations. The latter has been attributed to differences in reporting by media outlets, while the former has been associated with the relatively lower death rate for younger people who contract COVID-19.

“But with asymptomatic transmission being possible, it means that the young who don't actually experience any symptoms can carry the virus to the elderly, and as a result, you can kill your grandfather,” said Jamieson.

Again, focus on the basics

From religious hand washing to panic hoarding, the public has adjusted their behaviors to the pandemic. Communicators -- and this includes anyone who shares information on social media -- need to be aware of the trade-off between relaying accurate pieces of information and confronting inaccurate ones.

“In the process of saying, ‘This is a myth, this is a myth, this is inaccurate, this is inaccurate,’ you can actually increase the likelihood that people would become more skeptical about accurate information,” said Jamieson.

While there is dangerous misinformation out there that needs to be addressed, Nyhan said, putting too much emphasis on debunking relatively harmless myths may result in information fatigue in the public.

“The misinformation and conspiracies we see out there can be worrisome, but I would worry more about the counterproductive effects of putting too much focus on trying to debunk them, rather than emphasizing behavioral steps that need to be taken to protect yourself or reinforcing the accurate information we have about the disease,” said Nyhan.

Jamieson agrees. “Right now, it doesn’t matter if people aren’t 100% accurate about everything that has to do with COVID, but we do need people to engage in the protective behaviors to minimize the spread,” she said.

Stay at home and wash your hands.

Editor's note (9:20 am, March 26, 2020): The comment by Jamieson on the debate of whether to label Zika as an STD has been slightly modified to clarify her message as requested by Jamieson. An earlier version reads "...because they worry it may stigmatize the disease."

Author Bio & Story Archive

Yuen Yiu is a former staff writer for Inside Science. He's a Ph.D. physicist and fluent in Cantonese and Mandarin. Follow Yuen on Twitter: @fromyiutoyou.