Fighting the good fight against the infodemic of COVID-19 misinformation
Olivia Gaskill | | Longer Read
How did “Those Nerdy Girls” and the Dear Pandemic campaign begin?
It started off when our founding editor-in-chief, Malia Jones, an epidemiologist at the University of Wisconsin, wrote an email to her friends and family back in March 2020 to tell them that COVID-19 was the real deal and that, as a pandemic, it was going to be a problem for a while. The email went viral on social media and ended up getting published in USA Today; Malia was even invited to speak on Dr. Phil. After that, she was flooded with questions from everyone. “What’s a pandemic?” “What do I need to do differently?” “What’s life going to be like?”
Her colleague, Alison Buttenheim (also an epidemiologist, behavioral scientist, and public health scientist), was also getting a lot of questions. So they decided to answer them more efficiently (together) on Facebook – and that’s how Dear Pandemic was born. They reached out to their personal networks, including me, Jennifer Beam Dowd (our nerdy girl across the pond at Oxford University), and a few other epidemiologists and clinicians to ask if we could help answer some of the questions. Initially, we thought it would be for our friends and family and personal networks, but it just kept growing.
We’ve now posted over 2,000 evidence-based posts on staying safe and sane during the pandemic. We have over 100,000 followers on our English-language Facebook page and another 49,000 on our Spanish page. We have satellite presence on Twitter and Instagram, we’ve done hundreds of interviews with traditional media, and we’ve given talks to many different audiences – from middle school classrooms to the World Bank.
Has the campaign’s aim changed since its launch?
Dear Pandemic is based on a decades-old advice column, “Dear Abby,” where people would write in with their problems and “Abby” would answer with her advice. We still very much play this social listening role, and we are also more intentional about a few things. We try to be timely and we care about being trustworthy, so we focus on using credible citations and references. We also try to be comprehensive, because we’ve learned that people are overwhelmed with information; many of our community members look to us as a one-stop shop. They don’t want to see all the headlines; they just want one consistent place they can go for their COVID-19 news. This timeliness, trustworthiness, and comprehensiveness is something we’ve evolved into from our initial question-and-answer format. We still take questions, but now we get more than we can answer, so we try to respond to those that pop up the most, cover a broad range of issues in the pandemic, and are timely and relevant.
Talk me through that process...
We have a formal question box in which we’ve received over 4,000 questions so far; we also receive questions on our Facebook page and in the community. We have an editorial calendar where we each take a spot every week. We’ve tried to have a broad coalition of scientists writing, so our Nerdy Girl team ranges from immunologists to mental health practitioners as a reflection of all the different types of questions we receive. My background is in health policy, analytics, and economics – I don’t understand lab science, so I’m grateful to the scientists on our team who give me the “bottom line” for those types of questions.
When it comes to writing, we are scientists, so the rigor and citing of sources comes naturally – the learning curve has been more about writing in a clear, accessible style. Our community doesn’t want to track down all the references we cite; there are pathologists and lab scientists in the community who will seek them out, but I’ve learned that the lay public just appreciate that the citation is there in the first place. It gives us a credibility boost and generates trust from our community and, even though they may not love science as much as we do, we can give them the “tl;dr” (too long; didn’t read).
Why has health misinformation been so prominent during the COVID-19 pandemic?
I don’t have a conclusive answer to this, but tech and social media platforms have become a major force in society – and regulations have not kept pace. More and more people are gathering their information from these platforms, rather than from the countervailing forces of traditional media and press conferences. Furthermore, the landscape of traditional information channels has been blown up to the point where information-seeking has become highly fragmented. I can go to my social media pages, someone else can go to theirs, and never the twain shall meet. With this fragmentation, misinformation can proliferate – and has proliferated.
Going forward, we must get better at fighting back. I’m hopeful that the World Health Organization (WHO) is throwing its shoulder into a scientific discipline called “infodemiology” – characterizing and battling health misinformation on the internet. Our existing communication infrastructure has been a disaster; the COVID-19 pandemic has been running parallel to this “infodemic,” and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in particular needs to learn from this and improve its response to future epidemics.
The democratization of medical knowledge is a force for good and, as scientists, we all have a role to play in fighting misinformation. We can do this by teaching scientific literacy, data literacy, and media literacy – giving people the tools of science; teaching them that science is a method, not a fixed set of facts; and showing them how to think like a scientist. We need to equip the public with their own critical thinking tools.
Are there any differences in how you relay information on each social media platform?
As a first-time public-facing communicator, one thing I’ve learned (that may be obvious to my communication scholar friends, but wasn‘t obvious to me) is that every platform is different. The campaign started on Facebook and it was many months before we had a website. On Facebook, people want to be in the community – they respond and react in a raw, emotional way. The conversation can go sideways quickly, but it can also be beautiful. Often, we watch our community members step up and fight misinformation themselves. However, we soon learned that we needed a website, because journalists and fellow scientists and clinicians will not cite a Facebook post as a trustworthy source. On the website, we don’t get that instant user feedback, but publishing a blog post on the website means that professionals will feel comfortable citing it.
Our Instagram audience is entirely different to Facebook – on the latter, they’re a lot like us. We’re middle-aged, female, mom scientists, but our Instagram audience is younger and has different cultural and political lenses on the world. We have to cater to a younger audience who are much more socially aware. Also, Instagram is a visual format, so we don’t get as many written comments, but we can create a more visual brand.
Have you faced any challenges as an all-woman team?
Actually, I think we have benefited from it. Our brand was given to us. It was unintentional – we just happened to all be female. Early on, community members would say, “I’m going to listen to those nerdy girls,” and the name stuck, so we made it more intentional because we found that our audience liked having a public-facing team of female scientists. We know that male experts have had more media time and more opportunities to be public-facing. For our community (most of whom are women) to see female scientists in the public eye and the media has given them some hope.
It has also been very empowering. Some of the notes that we get (we keep them because they’re personally meaningful) are along the lines of, “Thank you, Nerdy Girls, you’re showing my daughter that women can be scientists,” and “Thank you, Nerdy Girls, I am a female scientist and have experienced a lot of sexism. I’m so delighted to see you doing this work in the public eye.” When we receive these types of emails, we realize that this is why we do it.
We mostly run Dear Pandemic on a volunteer basis. We are working moms in a pandemic – at one point we counted 30 kids between us, even before we onboarded new writers. There are two key pillars that engender trust in science communication: source credibility and relatability. Our credibility comes from being scientists, but the fact that we are working moms has made us more relatable to our community in a way that sparks and maintains trust – which, in today’s world, is sacred.
What’s the most frustrating myth you’ve heard about COVID-19?
When it comes to misinformation, the 5G network myth is a head-scratcher; it kind of blew my mind. But the two that have made me the maddest are “COVID-19 is just the flu” and “We don’t need to wear masks.” I’ve spent the past 18 months debugging a bunch of those comments. They’re like a Hydra – cut off one head and two more spring up in its place. There is all kinds of misinformation out there that rears its ugly head, but COVID-19 killed eight times more people in a year in the US alone than the worst flu season in a decade. There’s always a flavor of the week, but those two myths just won’t die.
The other one that has made me viscerally angry as a mother is the myth that the COVID-19 vaccine impacts fertility. It’s a sucker punch because, if you want to incite vaccine hesitancy, you go straight for that. It was like the MMR vaccine/autism myth all over again – nasty, intentional, and coordinated. I have now had dozens of conversations with worried young women in my life and in my personal networks about this piece of misinformation, but it’s much easier to poison a well than it is to clean it up.
We need journalism training for scientists to teach them how to tell a story and provide an anecdote or give an example in a way the lay public can understand, so that we can stop journalists running away with results and spreading misinformation. Going forward, I want to train other people to be public-facing scientists rather than be one myself, so I’ve been thinking a lot about how to train the “nerdy girl” nation. I’m just one person and it’s not about me; it’s about arming every school nurse, pathologist, clinician, or school librarian – all of the “nerdy girls-next-door” across the country. Our most powerful force against misinformation is equipping and empowering them to use their voices in public spaces.
What’s the key to getting through to people who believe health misinformation?
There is a science of science communication and there are some empirically backed tips on how to talk about conspiracy theories and misinformation. Typically, it’s to show empathy – don’t come at somebody with shame or ridicule; connect authentically, affirm critical thinking, and invoke conspiracy theory “exiters” as trusted messengers. However, you also have to know when to walk away. If you’re batting .250 with these conversations, you’re a superstar. It’s slow, hard work and it takes multiple conversations that often don’t end up working.
We all have a part to play. For example, lab scientists are patient-facing in a way they don’t understand; they live in a community, they have friends, family, kids, and though they may not see patients all day long, they’re embedded in a community where their voice matters and they have the credibility to be a trusted source. That’s powerful because we’ve learned that the truly effective way to fight misinformation is via offline communication. It’s the personal connection that brings people back. I want lab scientists to feel empowered in the role they play as community members – they’re a potent resource against misinformation.
Once the pandemic is past, what will be next for Dear Pandemic?
Medical myths and misleading health headlines preceded the pandemic and they will be around long after. We will continue to help people understand health news and we are planning to create a nonprofit to make sure that good health information is accessible on all kinds of different platforms – meeting people where they are. As a society, our wiring has been scrambled; we’re going to be so anxious and tuned in to infectious diseases that there’s going to be a significant appetite for keeping up with emerging threats. Personally, my next step is to ensure we get better at fighting the infodemics that inevitably emerge when health emergencies pop up.
It has been a challenging time, but I would feel remiss if I didn’t say that there has been joy and meaning and purpose in this work that we’ve been doing – the joy of being in a community with fellow female scientists has been a real bright spot in the dark and we’ve been fueled by our purpose of explaining scary headlines. It has been an honor and a privilege to be a standard-bearer for women in science. The work is serious and heavy, but there are some rewards that I will take with me for the rest of my life.
Lindsey Leininger is a public health scientist and Clinical Professor of Business Administration, Tuck School of Business, Dartmouth College, Hanover, New Hampshire, USA.