On February 2, 2021, Digital Public Square and TikTok Canada convened a roundtable of medical experts, public health practitioners, civil society leaders, and content creators to discuss strategies for tackling COVID-19 and vaccine misinformation. This Chatham House Rule discussion focused on how Canadians are increasingly relying on online platforms to obtain and share information and how online misinformation may increase vaccine hesitancy. The outcomes of this discussion shed light on new ways to think about public health communications and offered implementable ideas for how we can work together to address vaccine hesitancy by fighting related misinformation narratives online.
Takeaway 1: Locally deployed and community-based approaches are critical.
Local leaders – those who have the public’s trust and understand the prevailing circumstances and perspectives of their communities – are often more effective than provincial, territorial, or federal officials in effectively communicating critical information about vaccines and public health. Public officials must develop strategies to allow them to support these credible community messengers and trusted figures in order to effectively engage with people at scale. Through these community leaders, we can further identify more diverse channels for communicating critical vaccine information to those who are at-risk. Further, communication campaigns must be co-developed alongside the communities they intend to serve. This includes engaging young people, a key population in driving vaccine adoption.
Takeaway 2: Trusted, non-traditional sources drive meaningful engagement.
Information must come from a source that people trust. Today, these trusted sources are often peer networks and influencers who share information through social media and other non-traditional channels of information. These channels feature diverse voices, a wide range of content styles, and new expectations for engagement. However, leveraging these new channels, which may be unknown, riskier, and allow for less control than traditional channels, poses a challenge for government. Working with civil society leaders that are rapidly adopting these new platforms is a way for government to manage this risk.
Takeaway 3: Tailor messages to your audience.
The messaging around COVID-19 and vaccine misinformation needs to be more contextually relevant and less “one-size-fits-all.” Change on vaccine hesitancy is not likely to be addressed by top-down, prescriptive education campaigns. Rather, real change will arise when we can engage people in conversation about the COVID-19 vaccine in a way that is inclusive and meets people where they are – regardless of levels of knowledge, age, language, or background. Public health communication also needs to be matched with appropriate frameworks that capture feedback from a diverse range of people. Building frameworks for feedback helps to strengthen transparency and enable a process of co-developing solutions alongside the communities they are intended to serve.
Takeaway 4: Platforms should incentivize trusted, verified information.
Social media and content platforms are devoting increased resources to addressing the problem of vaccine misinformation on their platforms, including by directing users to authoritative, verified, and up-to-date information. However, similar to governments, these platforms also face barriers in elevating smaller, contextually-relevant sources of information, and local community leaders.
Platforms should explore ways to increase the availability of accurate content by incentivizing or rewarding content creators for posting information that is verified and engaging. Platforms could also consider expanded guidelines around content transparency, such as requiring content creators to disclose whether they receive funding for posting content, and where such funding comes from.
Similarly, platforms should seek to incentivize people who encounter misinformation online to report it. Currently, people may be hesitant to report the inaccurate content due to concerns about anonymity and a lack of feedback and transparency from platforms to users who choose to report content.
Takeaway 5: Invest in digital media and science literacy.
Gaps in digital media and science literacy, paired with public communications that don’t match the literacy level of the overall population, lead to mistrust in public health experts and institutions. When, for example, people don’t understand why public health guidelines change and evolve over time as new evidence is generated, they can become distrustful of the information provided by authorities and seek out alternative, and often inaccurate, sources of information. It is imperative that Canadians have the tools and capacity to navigate public health and vaccine information, including how to verify information and how to fill knowledge gaps with credible sources. Building digital media and scientific literacy should be an iterative process that takes place across the entire lifecycle: from kindergarten to old age.
Practical steps to address the infodemic
Collectively, the perspectives and strategies shared at this roundtable discussion identify several focus areas to help reduce vaccine hesitancy resulting from misinformation online. While not exhaustive, the five key takeaways highlighted in this summary are intended to help us think about how we can scale successful approaches.
While the COVID-19 infodemic has dangerous consequences, it also presents an opportunity for government, civil society, and concerned citizens to create innovative, tested solutions to addressing information crises. By making strides to address COVID-19 and vaccine misinformation today, we can create a future where public health communications are more effective in a digital world and where communities are more resilient to the effects of misinformation. We hope that the insights shared in this summary serve as both a source of inspiration and hope to policymakers, practitioners, and concerned citizens seeking to find new strategies to respond to the evolving COVID-19 infodemic.
A PDF version of this summary can be downloaded here.
Written by Digital Public Square and TikTok Canada@dpsorg