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It's time for a US strategy to combat health-related misinformation and disinformation

It's time for a US strategy to combat health-related misinformation and disinformation
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The insidious spread of false health information has matched the spread of COVID-19 stride for stride. We’ve seen during the pandemic that health-related misinformation and disinformation can effectively undermine the response to a public health crisis. 

In just the past year there has been a 50 percent increase in anti-vaccine conspiracy accounts on social media. Tomorrow the CEOs of Facebook, Google and Twitter will testify before Congress about COVID-19 misinformation circulating on their platforms. While a congressional grilling may be cathartic, it’s high time for the government, social media companies and other stakeholders to do the hard work of building a coherent and fair strategy for combating the growing menace of false health-related information. 

The proliferation of misinformation and disinformation is nothing new, but it is clear that we can no longer underestimate its permeating power, especially during health emergencies. Although compounded by communication failures during the COVID-19 response, rumors and lies have been downright dangerous, contributing to infections, deaths, disruption and disorganization of efforts to manage the health crisis. Examples are plentiful, ranging from touted miracle cures to conspiracy theories about vaccines. As we now attempt to reach every eligible American with a vaccine, we know that even the most effective vaccine cannot work if people, misled by falsehoods, are too frightened to take it. 

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Much has been written about the problem, but little about real solutions. Unfortunately, there will be no easy fixes. The governance terrain around health-related misinformation and disinformation is rife with technical complexities, as are the free speech concerns and no clear government agency tasked with leadership in this area. So far, we’ve looked to social media companies to make technical interventions that are critical but woefully insufficient to prevent the spread of health-related misinformation and disinformation. 

It’s time for solutions that encompass the entirety of the health misinformation landscape, rather than small-bore efforts that do not move the needle. The U.S. must address the problem of health-related misinformation and disinformation through a national strategy to ensure an effective response to the COVID-19 pandemic and to prepare for the challenges of future public health emergencies. Time is critical — policymakers should act now while the threat is clear and before conditions worsen. 

A national strategy will need actions along four organizing pillars: 

First, we must intervene against false and damaging content as well as the sources propagating it. This starts with recognizing health-related misinformation and disinformation as a national security issue and organizing around this threat accordingly. We should continue to encourage active, transparent, nonpartisan intervention from social media and news media companies to control the spread of false information and curtail generators of false information. To help with this task, the United States should establish a national commission that provides neutral, evidence-based guidance and recommendations to improve the health communication landscape. Rather than leaving the sole responsibility for decisions about intervention to technology companies, an interdisciplinary, nonpartisan commission made up of social media operators, communication specialists, public health experts and bioethicists could help to formulate governance options, mitigation strategies and interventions against misleading content that could undermine the public’s health.

Second, the U.S. must get better at ensuring the abundant presence and dissemination of factual health-related information. If we put more money where our mouth is, we would increase funding for public health departments to hire staff dedicated to risk communications and related research. With adequate support, these risk communicators could do more outreach to social media platforms and news media and greatly increase the flow of true information through many channels rather than just the public health echo chamber. 

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Third, the United States should work to increase the public’s resilience to misinformation and disinformation. Given the impossibility of stopping all false information, it is imperative that we improve people’s ability to decide for themselves what is true or misleading. To do this, we should promote health and digital literacy through multiple sources including schools, community organizations, social media and news media. We should also provide consumers with tools to choose responsible sources of information and increase their awareness of disinformation tactics and approaches. Building out the development of a robust fact-checking infrastructure could further empower the public to verify questionable content on their own. Tech companies can help here, but we need commitment and political will to make this a reality. 

Finally, the United States must ensure a whole-of-nation response through multi-sector and multi-agency collaboration. The response to COVID-19 misinformation and disinformation will not be effective if only a few stakeholders make efforts to control it. A national strategy will include input from collective planning with social media, news media, government, national security officials, constitutional scholars, public health officials, scientists and the public. Coordination across the range of government agencies to streamline and organize efforts will be critical.

The time for solutions is now. The damage done by the spread of false health-related information grows by the second as we try to emerge from the COVID-19 crisis. We have a path back to “normal,” but we will all be delayed or derailed if misinformation and disinformation is allowed to run rampant in our communities. The creation of a national strategy is a good place to start to address this complex challenge.

Tara Kirk Sell, PhD, is a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. She has worked for over a decade on pandemic preparedness and response with a focus on risk communication and management of health misinformation. Dr. Sell is the lead author of a new report “National Priorities to Combat Misinformation and Disinformation for COVID-19 and Future Public Health Threats: A Call for a National Strategy.”