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How to combat health misinformation: insights from a communication and human behaviour expert

Health misinformation is not a new concept but has received much attention in the last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Discerning fact from fiction has been complicated by an abundance of conspiracy theories, rumours, and sensationalist reports. The seriousness of the consequences of COVID-19 misinformation cannot be overestimated: acting on unsound advice could be life-threatening for an individual, while vaccine hesitancy could delay control of the pandemic on an international scale. Following his keynote speech at the 2021 Annual Meeting of the International Society for Medical Publication Professionals (ISMPP) earlier this year, The Publication Plan spoke to Brian Southwell, Senior Director of RTI International’s Science in the Public Sphere programme, to find out what can be done to prevent misinformation and how public trust in science can be improved.

Please could you describe RTI International’s Science in the Public Sphere programme?  

“The Science in the Public Sphere program uses social science to investigate public understanding of science, health, and wellbeing and to support projects intended to help people navigate their information environments. The program is part of the Center for Communication Science at RTI International, an independent, nonprofit research institute dedicated to improving the human condition.”

Several retractions of COVID-19 related publications have been made by high profile journals, which may reduce the public’s trust in science. In your experience what level of trust does the public have in science and has this changed during the pandemic? What are the main reasons for a lack of trust?

“Actually, it is important to point out that public trust in science has been relatively high in the United States in recent decades. If you look at indicators such the General Social Survey, you’ll see that people have tended to believe that scientists are acting in the best interests of the public. We hear a lot about mistrust in news headlines but there is a difference between some people being vocal about specific issues related to science and people generally not trusting science.

We hear a lot about mistrust in news headlines but there is a difference between some people being vocal about specific issues related to science and people generally not trusting science.

During the pandemic, scientific evidence has evolved and so at times it might be difficult for people to keep track of the latest developments. At the same time, we also have had a tremendous success story with the arrival of vaccines and so there is a possibility that trust even might have increased among some people during parts of the pandemic with the arrival of good news from scientific research.”

The World Health Organization noted that the COVID-19 pandemic was accompanied by a “massive ‘infodemic’ – an over-abundance of information”. What can be done to help the public identify accurate and reliable guidance, especially when so much information is available and not all of it is trustworthy?

“The first step we need to take is to embrace other people as human beings. As humans, we all are vulnerable to accepting misinformation under some circumstances. Once you understand that we all are in this together, it is easier to see that most people are not willingly accepting false information or willingly sharing false information that they know to be false. That means that we can help people by providing them with timely and comprehensive guides to information that can give them a trusted place to turn rather than scouring the Internet.

We should encourage people to be careful when they encounter information from a single source that seems too good to be true.

In terms of identifying misinformation, we should encourage people to be careful when they encounter information from a single source that seems too good to be true. Comparing information from a few trusted sources can be useful and even just using a quick Internet search to verify that at least some known sources are also reporting a particular idea before you share it can be useful.”

With research being generated at an unprecedented speed, findings may be contradicted by later research. What is the best way to communicate scientific findings to the public when data are being generated and published at such high rates? 

“We need to encourage people to consider science as a process of building knowledge. The idea that science is a process is very important. Sometimes people don’t realise that we use various methods to develop knowledge over time. Once you realise that, it becomes easier to understand why the headlines sometimes change from month to month as we learn more information.”

There has been a push towards open access in recent years and increasingly, plain language summaries are being published alongside research. How important is it to make scientific research more accessible to the public?

“It would be helpful if people could have more access to published scientific research than they do now. We also know, though, that many people don’t have time to wade through piles and piles of journal articles even if they do have access. We could be doing a better job of summarising and translating peer-reviewed research than we currently are.”

We could be doing a better job of summarising and translating peer-reviewed research than we currently are.

The pandemic has led to a rise in preprints to help meet the demand for rapid data dissemination. However, preprints may be reported in the media with no disclosure as to the uncertain nature of the work. What are your views on the use of preprints? Should media outlets be required to highlight if a story is based on a preprint, and explain what that means?

“The publishing process has been slow in some ways historically. It would be helpful if accepted research could be available more quickly than has been the case. That said, the peer-review process also is vital and so it is important that we distinguish between work that has been reviewed by scientific peers in a blinded manner and work that has not been. We should try to optimise the availability of work once it has been accepted for publication and could try to make the peer review process quicker than it has been.”

Sensationalist headlines and exaggerated findings reported by the media undoubtedly lead to misunderstandings of research among the public. In your opinion, how much do issues with scientific publication practices, such as predatory publishers or publication bias, also contribute to misinformation?

“Misinformation is a multifaceted problem with many authors. Predatory publishing practices do not help and the pressure to publish as many papers as possible rather than focusing on a smaller number of high-quality papers likely does contribute to the misinformation problems that we face.”

You have stated that misinformation is not a new phenomenon, but has been exacerbated by social media. How can social media be used as a fast and convenient method of sharing and obtaining information, without perpetuating misinformation?

“Social media make widespread connections and quick exchanges possible and that has been helpful for a lot of people. We need to view social media platforms as a complementary tool, though, and not necessarily the main stage.

We need to view social media platforms as a complementary tool, though, and not necessarily the main stage.

Established journals and institutions can extend their reach through social media platforms and can consider developing accounts with dedicated staff and a commitment to regular updates. Turning away from social media altogether isn’t likely going to solve the dilemmas we face but we also can’t assume any series of tweets will solve our problems either. Keep in mind that many people do not use social media at all and we have to keep looking for ways to reach historically marginalised audiences also.”

What advice would you give to medical publications professionals to help prevent misinformation and restore the public’s trust in science?

“Part of the reason people turn to convenient, accessible, and ubiquitous information sources is because they are convenient, accessible, and ubiquitous. Medical publications professionals should spend time thinking about what they could do to reach people directly and to offer translation of their key research results. Building relationships with audiences can help. We need to worry less about stamping out misinformation and worry more about providing people with a steady diet of information that serves their needs.”

We need to worry less about stamping out misinformation and worry more about providing people with a steady diet of information that serves their needs.

Brian Southwell is Senior Director of RTI International’s Science in the Public Sphere programme. He is also a faculty member at Duke University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, as well as the creator and host of radio show The Measure of Everyday Life and an advisor for NOVA Science Studio. For more information, contact news@rti.org or follow Brian on Twitter.

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What do you think are the main contributors to medical misinformation?

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