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How do you solve a problem like... misinformation during a pandemic?

How can marketers solve the problem of misinformation?

Each week, we ask readers of The Drum, from brands, agencies and everything in between, for their advice on real problems facing today’s marketing practitioners.

Throughout the pandemic, misinformation has remained a constant opponent of government, brand and media efforts to communicate the truth about Covid-19.

The past year will provide a rich library of examples of successful and failed efforts to combat pandemic misinformation – which can hopefully inform comms efforts in the future. What have marketers learned over the last (give-or-take) 12 months about misinformation? And are those lessons relevant for brands as they evolve the ways in which they engage consumers?

How do you solve a problem like... misinformation during a pandemic?

Susan Manber, chief patient officer, Publicis Health

To combat misinformation in healthcare we must understand why it exists in the first place. While social media and politics are contributing factors, there are other more nuanced elements to the misinformation epidemic. For example, because of events like the Tuskegee experiments, BIPOC are rightly skeptical of the medical establishment.

Once you understand why people embrace misinformation, you can take steps to combat it with empathy by addressing specific concerns in clear, simple language. By respecting the underlying skepticism and simplifying messaging, brands, governments and society can begin to address misinformation and rebuild trust across communities.

Zack Sullivan, UK chief revenue officer, Future

Misinformation is not new and while the pandemic has put issues such as fake news in the spotlight, it has also highlighted the value of premium publishers in combating these concerns. In the face of huge uncertainty, consumers increasingly seek reliable content from sources they know and trust.

Securing lasting publishing success means delivering insightful, valuable and high-quality media that will maintain vital consumer trust and relationships, for both publishers and brands. By producing this content under journalist-level standards, premium publishers gain access to quality audiences at scale and offer advertisers a valuable brand-safe environment.

Malcolm Poynton, global chief creative officer, Cheil Worldwide

In authoritarian countries, any view that challenges those in power is deemed misinformation. So defining what misinformation is can be tricky and varies depending on who is doing the defining.

In the case of communications around the pandemic in the UK, a key failing was the government’s inability to maintain trust and to establish a compelling enough narrative. Boris Johnson’s perpetual U-turns and distinctly mixed messaging served to undermine attempts to inform and reassure the public. You can’t control misinformation, but you can drown it out with consistency and credibility.

Esther Au Yong, editor-in-chief (news & finance), Yahoo South East Asia, Verizon Media

During a pandemic, uncertainty is higher than usual and people are understandably more emotional. In this climate, it is crucial for publishers and newsrooms to keep our focus on serving our readers and bringing value to them – to do that, Yahoo relied on the combo of speed and accuracy in bringing trusted, useful content to our audience.

This included doubling down on editorial accountability and transparency in our newsroom, lobbying for timely access to information from officials and, in the Philippines, helping readers access accurate information and trusted content in lockdown situations that limited their usual access to the internet in the workplace, school or public areas. Perhaps the best strategy is to go back to basics: do good by the audience we are ultimately serving (readers) and sustain our commitment to the highest standards of editorial integrity.

Lauren Myers-Cavanagh, Asia Pacific head of policy communications, Twitter

Since introducing new policies and interventions around Covid-19 to reduce the spread of misinformation, we have suspended and challenged millions of accounts that were engaged in manipulative behaviour. We’ve expanded our search prompts to ensure credible, authoritative content is surfaced first and we’ve partnered with NGOs and governments to get reputable health information out to the widest possible audiences.

We also use labels to give people additional context and surface-related conversations on topics that might be controversial. For us, combining technology with human review at scale is going to be critical to how we protect the public conversation. It’s a sensitive time for brands to be communicating with their audiences and our job is to ensure their safety and relevance. Equally, brands can do their part by empowering people to read before they tweet.

Rachel Cook, client director, Thompson Brand Partners

Respect, reassurance, repetition. Studies have shown that you can’t scare people out of believing in misinformation, but if left unchecked that belief can harden. The so-called ’Project Fear’ approach doesn’t work. Trust is critical. Our work for the UK’s most trusted brand – the NHS – has shown that local communities are effective in tackling misunderstandings around issues like mental health.

Sadly, platforms like WhatsApp and Facebook won’t accept some types of campaign from the NHS as it isn’t a business. Working with trusted figures like celebrities makes sense, but it has to be a sustained campaign with local roots.

Crystal Son, director of healthcare analytics at Civis Analytics

We’ve seen that trying to correct misinformation directly via messaging is typically not effective and may even backfire. For example, our research suggests that combating Covid-19 vaccine disinformation by focusing heavily on how safe it is doesn’t work and, with some audiences, can backfire. Making attempts to correct misinformation is tempting, but can draw unwanted focus to the myths you’re trying to dispel.

Ryanne Laredo, chief customer officer, Amobee

As the Covid-19 crisis continues, even as vaccines rollout, the advertising industry has an inherent duty to support fact-based journalism to ensure continued access to accurate and timely information. The battle against misinformation is something Amobee has taken seriously as we work with partners like Newsguard to ensure our customers are not advertising next to anything that could be construed as fake news. A number of our clients have re-examined and reimagined their campaigns over the past year. And, working closely with them on a case-by-case basis, we have illustrated the value of the audiences that fact-based journalism attracts and the engagement opportunity for brands that such coverage provides.

Polly Buckland, strategy director, Create Health

Misinformation causes disengagement, which, with healthcare messages, can genuinely impact people’s wellbeing or even lives. And the industry has a long memory. Consider the impact of one fraudulent study linking MMR vaccines to autism.

At times of uncertainty, our emotional state increases our susceptibility to unfounded, potentially damaging claims. So, this last year has been about finding strategies to cut through the drama and helping brands connect with their audience in practical ways.

An empathetic approach might have connotations of tea and sympathy rather than commercial success. However, it’s critical to plan campaigns around empathy for audiences right now. Interestingly, this has actually meant successful campaigns with less emotional content and much more clarity.

Mark Viden, senior vice-president of brand, CommonSpirit Health

Covid-19 created feelings of fear and confusion in many communities. People were desperate for information and, as a result, were more susceptible to misinformation. At CommonSpirit Health, we were able to leverage the equity we had around humanity and connection, which enabled us to serve critical information that cut through the wasteland of misinformation. To truly combat misinformation, brands must create real, authentic connections before a crisis hits in order to focus on messaging which is consistent and clear during a crisis. Only then will brands be viewed as a voice of reason, compassion and as a center of knowledge.

Jake Bayham, strategy director, Butler, Shine, Stern & Partners

The misinformation machine is fed by tribalism, which turns all debate into rage-inducing attacks on one’s worldview. This forces people into their corner, making them unreceptive to information that clashes with their biases. Our approach to combating misinformation surrounding Covid-19 for Blue Shield of California is to try to appeal to broader human emotions that sit above the tribal discourse and are inherently more difficult to deny. Our latest vaccination message, ’Get It For...’, appeals to the universal longing to return to normal – to birthdays, concerts and stadiums. It’s not a call to switch allegiances, but a call to live.

Richard Huntington, chairman and chief strategy officer, Saatchi & Saatchi

Our ability to combat a virus that is cleverer and more agile than us has undeniably been compromised by misinformation. But the truth is, the worst time to combat this is during a crisis itself. Had we worked harder over the last decade to build faith in vaccination, investing in education we knew we would need, we would be in a very different position. The lesson must be that we combat misinformation when it arises, not wait until the point when it becomes weaponised by crisis. And we act against the platforms that monetize fear, recognising the threat they pose to all of us.

Jared Shurin, head of planning, Social Impact Practice, M&C Saatchi

There are three key principles that inform our misinformation work for governments and NGOs.

You need grassroots insight. Misinformation travels by word of mouth. Without real listening, you only hear misinformation as it enters the mainstream.

You need to understand why people want to believe it and examine the issues beneath.

Direct rebuttal should be used sparingly. Arguing with lies makes them memorable, so instead make sure that the truth is compelling.

Advertising can easily promote harmful social norms or foster dissatisfaction. The first step to being part of the solution is to make sure you’re not part of the problem.

Reece Jackson, strategy director, Blue State

Misinformation is a huge problem. In a 2020 UK study, we found over 250,000 bots posted about Covid-19 fortnightly, infiltrating communities, hacking accounts, spamming hashtags and more. There’s no quick fix. Misinformation is hard to spot; only 4% of us can distinguish it. We need to accept we’re vulnerable, fact-check and report it when we see it.

Brands can support safer online spaces by scenario planning – then containing, counter-narrating and campaigning. Platforms, service providers and governments play a role too; they need to regulate advertising exchanges, removing misinformation host environments and cutting off their advertising revenue. Platforms that enable it need to be held accountable and face stricter penalties so that combatting misinformation makes financial business sense.

Check out The Drum’s special Health hub, which examines how the key players – from health agencies to pharma firms to brands – are doing their part to return the world to normality.