Communicating to overcome fear, suspicion, and to counter active attempts to mislead the public – our lives may depend on it 

Words by Ida Jooste

Every year all member states of the United Nations (currently 194 countries) meet in Geneva, Switzerland, for the World Health Assembly (WHA), where major health policy issues are discussed and decided and where country representatives approve the World Health Organization (WHO) program of work for upcoming year(s). In parallel to these deliberations, there is always a packed side event calendar with panel discussions, mini-conferences, expert talks and Q and A sessions on pressing health issues. One of these was on the health harms of mis and disinformation and Internews made a presentation of the role journalists can play to protect their readers from harm.   

Internews’ Ida Jooste speaks as part of a panel discussion on disinformation at the 2024 World Health Assembly in Geneva. Credit: WHA/Supplied

Not long after declaring the COVID-19 outbreak a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC), the WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Ghebreyesus also described the dangers of the parallel “infodemic”. There was an abundance of information, including harmful misinformation and also deliberately crafted disinformation. I was recently at a workshop about innovations in vaccine development and we were asked to complete the sentence “The world would be a better place if …”, and I blurted out “… if we better knew how to combat misinformation”. So, I was thrilled when I was invited to speak at a WHA side event arranged by the Pandemic Action Network, titled Health Communications in an Era of Disinformation: Priorities for Stakeholders in 2024 and Beyond.  

This is a burning issue for Internews – in all areas of our work and in our health work, we have had our thinking caps on to find ways to tackle the problem. Recently, we launched the Internews Framework for Information Integrity – a practical tool for designing interventions. Speakers at the panel discussion addressed the issue from all angles and I wanted to make the point clear that we believe no single intervention would be enough – all hands are urgently needed and we need to have strategic partnerships to minimize the effects of misinformation.  

“Every time you open your mouth, you save another life” – Imran Ahmed, Center  for Countering Digital Hate 

(From right) Dr Ricardo Baptista Leite, Ida Jooste and Saul Walker take part in a panel discussion titled Health Communications in an Era of Disinformation at the 2024 World Health Assembly in Geneva. Credit: WHA/Supplied

Keynote speaker, Imran Ahmed, Founder and CEO of the Center for Countering Digital Hate said research showed at least 200 000 Americans died due to vaccine misinformation, 70 times the 9/11 death toll. Social media platforms profited from anti-vaccine misinformation during the pandemic, he said, with the top anti-vax non-profits raising $118 million between 2020 and 2022. A Center for Countering Digital Hate research report showed just how profitable misinformation is for bad actors. Their research found that Google was selling search terms for disinformation. “The verb to google used to mean ‘to find out’. But it doesn’t mean to find out the truth anymore. What it means is to be misled for profit quite often”, said Ahmed. The Center will continue to focus efforts on chasing the money (finding out who funds and/or profits from disinformation) and urges that social media platforms must be held accountable. Ahmed also urged responsible health communicators to ensure that their voices aren’t silenced.  

Dr. Benjamin Djoudalbaye, Head of Policy and Health Diplomacy at the Africa Centers for Disease Control said the pandemic taught the agency that it was important to first thoroughly understand the information landscape. Africa CDC recognised the importance of cooperation between health authorities, media outlets, the private sector and CSOs who combat misinformation and also found that misinformation spread rapidly across borders and this forged cooperation between the regions on the continent to be stronger to fight misinformation together.   

“Information breeds where there is a void”, said Vivianne Ihekweazu, Managing Director of Nigeria Health Watch, “and that void is quickly filled by information disorder”.  

“Social media and digital communications have turbo boosted misinformation and the role of civil society and the media to counter this is very important” – Vivianne Ihekweazu, Nigeria Health Watch 

Ihekweazu said where there’s a trust deficit between the government and the population, it was important to fast-track the building of trust through crisis communication strategies and by being extremely transparent. When you are not sure what people are asking or saying, use social listening methods to ensure that concerns are addressed, she said. Media fellowships on science communication also bridged truth and trust gaps in Nigeria.  

“Disinformation in global health can be considered a crime against humanity, because evidence-based information prevents disease and avoids unnecessary deaths”, said  Dr. Mariam Jashi of UNITE Chapter Chair for Eastern Europe and Central Asia. She cited the 1998 fraudulent study that claimed immunization caused autism. The study was retracted and has been shown to be based on poor science and fabrication – yet people have been risking their children’s lives through this untruth.  

Gabby Stern, the WHO Director of Communications urged listeners to not be distracted by misinformation about the pandemic treaty and said world leaders would give it a chance if they recognised that health was a priority. John Wabwire, a Community Health Promoter for the Ministry of Health in Kenya in Busia County said community dialogue leads people to an understanding of the science and health providers to an understanding of the types of fears and misperceptions people have. Saul Walker, Interim Executive Director for Policy, Partnerships and Access at Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) also emphasized building trust and said trust must be built over times, so that when a crisis strikes, there are no trust hurdles and so for example a new vaccine could be deployed fast and save lives effectively.  

In my presentation, I showed how skilled and informed journalists earn trust and thus have a vital role to play to walk the journey towards better health choices with their audiences. This can be done through partnerships with the various groups who work to counter mis- and disinformation. Linking journalists to those who investigate bot farms, for example, can lead to investigative stories about disinformation. By reporting regularly on the topic of misinformation, journalists lead their audiences to vigilance and better media literacy. Journalists also strengthen their reach and trustworthiness through building their networks and contacts – the best scientists, the health ministries and field workers, community health workers and health advocates must be a phone call away for commentary in their health stories.   

“Don’t be afraid to push good science”– Jon Cohen, journalist at Science 

One of the best pieces of advice I ever got as a science journalists was that good science is good news – usually. Jon Cohen, who is a specialist science writer and investigative journalist at top international publications, once told me science writers make a mistake if they look only for controversy when writing about science. During the height of the pandemic he wrote about the reasons why we got very good COVID vaccines so fast. Information that has integrity must fill available spaces, and very many journalists learnt during COVID that it was hard but worth the effort to help their audiences sift truth from untruth.