Misinformation about various health aspects – from diseases to treatments – have existed before the pandemic, but during the ongoing Covid-19 crisis the conspiracies and misinformation got worse. Especially due to public figures like the former President Donald Trump, but half-truths and uninformed opinions are damaging to the discourse as well.
In order to combat the false information, there must be a united effort to clarify misconceptions and debunk myths about topics like vaccination.
In this blog entry I explain how I’d approach it.
Beforehand, there’s a clear distinction I have to make between the online and offline UHF:
The offline UHF is likely going to have an internal structure, similar to an association, along with meetings, conferences, and so on. Not only for conversations about the association itself and the tasks, but also ordinary human interactions.
For instance, they could also help by spreading information about organ donation and blood donation. In-person, as we all have now learned by now, does make a difference.
The online UHF that are operation on forums and social media are more decentralized.
While there trustworthy sources (e.g. WHO, Nature, ScienceDaily) they all get their information from, they can also operate on their own or in smaller groups. Meetings can still happen in some form, such as Zoom or Discord, but that’s entirely up to the individuals.
The United Health Front covers the entire spectrum of factors that are related to our health. I separated it in three layers:
1. Layer (Core): The core of the UHF is to fight against misinformation and misconceptions.
It actively debunks myths, lies and fallacies on social media. Additionally, it also corrects information when public officials were unaware of an aspect or deliberately lied.
2. Layer (Mental Health): Mental health, and what goes on in the brain in general, is the second layer of the UHF. From common illnesses such as depression to neural divergents (e.g. autism). This category can also be called „Mind & Brain“.
3. Layer (Physical Health): Physical health covers nutrition, diseases (e.g. the common cold) and medicine. Thus it can also be called „Health, Medicine & Living Well“. Of course, it overlaps with mental health. Unlike the core, the second and third layer educate passively (i.e. those who operate in the second and third layer educate people through various ways, such as writing an article about a specific topic or organizing an event with an expert).
It should be understood that these layers are permeable, that means a public health expert is always in his/her right to play an active role in debunking myths, lies and fallacies. Vice versa, one who operated in the core has the right to switch to the second or third layer.
But how should one approach it online? This question can be answered, especially since some people already do it actively. On Reddit’s largest coronavirus forum are three moderators who fight disinformation, at the time of this writing it got around 2.4 million users.
„The forum has become a one-stop shop for up-to-date coronavirus information, offering up pandemic news, locations of vaccination sites and how to sign up for clinical trials. The community has also hosted Q&A discussions with the likes of Bill Gates and Tom Frieden, former director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as top researchers. Even Reddit CEO Steve Huffman reached out to the volunteers who moderate the forum to tell them that he starts his day by reading it and to thank them for their work.“
The three moderators are Patrick Doherty (biotech research scientist); Jennifer Cole (biological anthropologist at Royal Holloway University of London) and Rohan (M.D./Ph.D. student in molecular biology). If you interested in the full interview, you can find it here.
Here’s an important excerpt that shows how one should approach it online (perhaps, it could be applied to offline too):
„SN: How do you distinguish between misinformation that should be taken down versus a genuine question?„
Cole: At first, instead of just removing somebody, we engage with them. If their information is wrong, we explain why it’s wrong. And certainly the first time that users post something that is wrong, we will try and correct them and push them in the direction of the better information. If they keep coming back obviously trying to push a narrative, that’s when we will ban them. You do need to make a distinction between people who might have heard it somewhere and don’t understand it very well and need you to explain it to them a bit better, versus people who are trying to push a narrative. Sometimes we’ll check on users’ posting history and what else they’re posting elsewhere.„
You can’t ban someone in real life, that’s obvious. However, it serves as a good guide to conversations and how to react if confrontred with a false statement or half-truth.
Those who are trying to push a narrative will reveal themselves by disregarding anything you have said, the ordinary people who have merely understood something false or had a misconception learn from it.
In the media, especially interviews, it is important that the interviewer pushes back when a guest spreads disinformation on Covid-19, for example. As with ordinary people, both the interviewer and the audience notice by the reaction of the guest whether he/she was wrong about it, acknowledges it and doesn’t repeat it afterwards; and those guests who do not care about the truth at all and either repeat the disinformation or remain unchanged in their opinion thereafter.
Bit by bit, the disruptors can be filtered out and disinformation effectively and efficiently combatted.
Trustworthy sources are already known, like the WHO or ScienceDaily, and for those who want to learn about it should the information be easily accessible. That can be achieved by listing all serious sources on a website that redirects the user to the websites.
Additionally, books and magazines which report factually correct can be recommended on the website as well.
Perhaps, online courses by experts (from teachers/university professors to scientists) can be made available as well.
Another idea of mine. As always, constructive criticism and respectful discussions are welcome.