March 6, 20207 min read
During a disease outbreak like Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19), governments play two fundamental roles.
First, they need to develop strategies that will help slow the rate at which viruses are spreading throughout the population. Second, they need to equip their medical systems (i.e. hospitals) with the tools necessary to provide care to an influx of sick patients. In both roles, clear communication is essential to achieving success.
While communication appears straightforward, both the UN and the World Health Organization (WHO) are reporting an infodemic around coronavirus, which makes it difficult for citizens to find reliable information about COVID-19.
This infodemic directly frustrates governmental mitigation strategies because misinformation leads to citizens having incorrect information about how to prevent transmission and they are more likely to unnecessarily panic and seek medical attention. For example, misinformation spreading through a town in Alabama recently highlighted how social media can cause rumors to spread and undermine public confidence in the government’s response to coronavirus.
Consistent messaging from the national to the local level can help governments achieve their main responsibilities: reducing transmission rates and preventing citizens from unnecessarily over-utilizing medical resources by equipping them to make informed decisions.
As more citizens consume their news and information through social media, they also look to their government sources for official guidance. But the abundance of information may trigger questions from citizens about which guidance, national or local, they should be following.
Variances in guidance across local and national officials often provide no added value and actually create an opportunity for information to be unintentionally misaligned.Digital channels like Twitter and Facebook can facilitate consistency between local and national governments. Through strategies like retweeting on Twitter or reposting on Facebook, governments can proliferate the same exact information to ensure citizens aren’t left confused by varied messaging.
Governments should also consider which channel they use to post information. Facebook has a staggering 2.5 billion active users, making it the platform that governments can most quickly and effectively proliferate their message to the broadest audience. Twitter should complement Facebook because it is now considered the authoritative social network for official government communications, so citizens often gravitate towards Twitter as their source for the most up-to-date information from their leaders.
Regardless of which channel governments use, there is a critical need to move more content onto digital channels because it is where citizens are looking for their information. Additionally, through reposting and retweeting, digital channels encourage governments to embrace consistency for their citizens so that they can be empowered by facts.
Admittedly, as more citizens post information about COVID-19, it becomes easier for the government’s guidance to be drowned out by other conversations happening on social media.
For reference, using Sprinklr to determine the number of times coronavirus or COVID-19 was referenced across both digital sources (i.e. Twitter, Reddit, online news publications) and traditional sources (i.e. radio and television) during the week of February 23 (the week that the United States CDC reported their expectation that the virus would become a global pandemic) we estimate that COVID-19 was discussed over 30 million times (see image below).
The sheer volume of information about COVID-19 creates a scenario where governmental messaging becomes overpowered by the coalescence of so many individual voices on social media. As the government’s social presence subsides, it becomes more difficult to highlight the fact-based, consistent messaging that we discussed in the previous section.
One helpful way to help increase awareness is by building easy-to-understand educational content. Already, we’ve seen governments create consumable content about COVID-19 prevention, risks, and treatment. For example, the CDC has created infographics to help explain best practices for prevention. Another great example includes a video the Vietnamese government, seen below, which created an easily digestible video explaining how citizens can prevent transmission:
In fact, this video became so popular that it inspired a viral movement on TikTok.
But while governments can attempt to create catchy videos, their efforts may continue to struggle against the noise on social media. The most effective way for governments to cut through the discord is to leverage social advertising. Similar to the discussion in Step 1, we know that citizens are turning to digital channels for their information and we know that health agencies should be creating consistent content on these channels. Using advertising will prioritize or “boost” the government-verified content from health agencies so that citizens are more likely to see it when they open their social media applications.
Advertising can also help ensure that citizens see tailored messaging to help further increase the impact of their content. For example, the CDC can send out different guidelines for different populations. Senior citizens, who are a higher risk population and are more prevalent on Facebook, should receive advertisements focused on preventative strategies. Millennials, who are a significantly lower risk population, should receive advertisements about steps to prevent continued transmission to higher-risk populations. And lastly, for citizens who might be using Facebook to get feedback through searching for terms associated with COVID-19, such as “I’m experiencing shortness of breath”, the CDC can send advertising content that highlights specific symptoms and when to seek medical attention.
At the beginning of an epidemic, governments may only need to leverage the owned digital channels to highlight content about the virus. However, as outbreaks spread to the magnitude of COVID-19, health agencies should consider increasing the intensity and acuity of communications to increase the likelihood that citizens are receiving the most targeted, impactful information.
The most challenging facet for government communications during the COVID-19 outbreak has been the scope of the infodemic.
Misinformation has resulted in governments not being able to fully focus their efforts on directly containing and mitigating the virus. For instance, in the rural town of Alliston, Alabama, citizens saw and proliferated rumors on Facebook that the government was flying infected patients to their town for treatment. Local officials needed to address small protests and ease concerns, which prevented them from directing their entire focus on preparation efforts.
This incident points to the power of social media to impact perceptions. Governments across all levels need to be using broad social listening. Social listening aggregates data across digital sources, like Twitter, blogs, and forums to surface commonly discussed themes to understand misinformation about COVID-19.
Currently, the UN and WHO are actively trying to combat the infodemic, but the approach needs to be more localized because global organizations don’t have the acute local context to effectively understand which information is factual and which information is a rumor. When governments begin seeing patterns of misinformation, they should be leveraging their digital channels to directly refute the rumors and communicate why the information is incorrect. Indeed, if misinformation becomes more prevalent, citizens will make unfortunate misjudgments that will stymie government efforts to mitigate the outbreak.
COVID-19 has already proven it has the potential to disrupt all facets of society. But with coordinated, effective strategies from governments — globally, nationally and locally — the severity of an outbreak can be drastically reduced. Effective communications play a fundamental role in ensuring that the transmission rate of the virus can be reduced and healthcare systems are fully equipped to treat ill patients. Governments and health agencies can achieve these goals by sharing clear content across channels, leveraging targeted advertising, and combating misinformation and disinformation to reduce confusion and panic.