The statistics, recommendations, new studies and predictions haven’t stopped coming since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Covid-19 and the coronavirus that causes this disease is constantly making headlines. Yet while doctors have become permanent fixtures on the news, the public hasn’t always come along on the messy, and at times unpredictable, journey that is science.
The very same information that was supposed to unite and guide Americans through the pandemic has further divided us. As we ask ourselves how we got here, it’s imperative to understand that the information itself is only a small part of the equation.
Health information, like all other types of information these days, is landing on a divided country.
Many Americans long ago decided who to believe, not by anyone’s credentials but by how closely the views of an “expert” align with their own. Science and its recommendations have become inconvenient truths to be disregarded by some, and even attacked, when they don’t fit preconceived narratives.
We also live in a cultural moment in which the individual often comes before the community.
The United States has for years cultivated and celebrated the “me first” and “my rights above it all” attitude. The anti-vaccine movement is one clear example which, among many other arguments, places a parent’s right to decide what goes into a child’s body above any benefit that vaccination would bring to the community.
But the existing division and individual attitudes don’t amount to the full picture either. A landscape of confusion, partial truths, changing narratives and “alternative facts” have left people vulnerable to conspiracy theories and false narratives that seem to offer all the answers.
Social media platforms — like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram — and their never-ending half-hearted game of whack-a-mole have allowed misinformation to spread, and to do so much faster than true information.
True news stories, a 2018 study found, took about six times longer to reach 1,500 Twitter users than false stories. The false stories “diffused significantly farther, faster, deeper, and more broadly than the truth in all categories of information,” according to the study by three Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers.
Then there is the matter of our own unconscious vulnerabilities. We are more likely to believe information we have heard several times, even when the information is false, an effect that psychologists have named the illusory truth effect. Since its initial description in the 1970s, the effect has been shown to persist even when the source of the information is perceived as unreliable or is not known.
What’s more, many people believe themselves to be equally qualified as expert virologists, immunologists and statisticians to interpret data; the illusory truth effect seems to be particularly strong when someone thinks they are knowledgeable in the topic.
In the midst of a global pandemic and with a landscape prime for misinformation, we’ve called upon doctors to become overnight communicators, to explain nuanced and evolving science one TV sound bite and one tweet at a time, and to do so without the benefit of public health agencies sending clear messages.
We hoped these medical professionals’ pleas, their logical explanations and their credibility would be enough to unite the US public and get them to follow their recommendations.
It was a noble thought. But with the large amount of misinformation online, the efforts of these true experts are never going to be enough to win back that part of the US public who had long ago decided who to believe. To be clear, we need doctors to keep flooding the airwaves and social media feeds with accurate information, but they can’t do this work alone.
Battle for accuracy just beginning
If health information is ever to truly unite people and lead them to better choices, our political leaders, public health agencies, social media platforms and the public must all take one long look at their role in the creation and spread of misinformation and take responsibility for their piece of the puzzle.
There has never been a lack of feasible options for all involved, but there must first be willingness.
Political leaders can still choose to empower rather than silence or vilify the voices of public health agencies. These government officials can and must choose to make meaningful investments to ensure public health agencies can do the work the American people need them to do for years to come.
Social media platforms also must begin to prioritize the display of accurate information on feeds, moving away from popular content pushed to the top by algorithms designed to maximize engagement and profit, without taking accuracy into account.
And lastly, the public must be aware of the misinformation era in which we live, pausing to question the source of the information and its accuracy before resharing.