Reducing Coronavirus Misinformation Key to Public Health

Michelle Baker

Be prepared to position your company, services, social programs, products or brands in today’s new reality – and in context of the swirl of disinformation.

With coronavirus (COVID-19), we’ve never seen a virus able to disrupt lives and economies at such a rapid rate. What we know about the virus changes each day, leading to shifts in public health messages, new medical guidelines, and evolving parameters about how we work, live, and socialize. This uncertainty fuels public fears, which ultimately opens the door for disinformation, scammers and unscrupulous businesses.
In fact, there is so much disinformation swirling around right now that a top World Health Organization (WHO) official called for “a vaccine against misinformation.” Here in the U.S., the “infodemic” has had such a negative impact that FEMA launched a “Coronavirus Rumor Control” website and the attorney general appointed a COVID-19 fraud coordinator to corral bad actors. In addition, the World Health Organization and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) both created COVID-19 “Myth Busters” campaigns.
Most recently the Federal Trade Commission and the Food and Drug Administration joined forces to issue seven warning letters to companies of unapproved or misbranded products claiming they prevent or treat COVID-19. These teas, essential oils and colloidal silver products put false hopes in the minds of consumers – with potentially costly and even deadly consequences. People seeking quick fixes may cast aside the public health guidance for social distancing and hygiene, or not seek medical care at essential times. And some products, such as colloidal silver, can be dangerous to patient health.
With COVID-19, the world’s focus has narrowed to a single health issue – and the consequences have spiked consumerism and health panic at rates never seen before. Stockpiling and hysteria have opened the door for scammers beyond those peddling fake cures – testing scams targeting Medicare and Medicaid patients with offers of fake COVID-19 tests, fake medical product suppliers peddling subpar medical masks and other equipment, provider scams posing as health systems and medical institutions and financial scammers operating bogus nonprofits or investment operations taking away money actually intended to help fight this public health crisis.
COVID-19 has certainly become a contagion online. Posts on quick fixes can rapidly escalate; some have clear claims to fame, as we saw following public references to the drug chloroquine as a “game changer” which would be “put to use immediately.” The Food and Drug Administration Commissioner clarified that it would be available via clinical trial only. But it was out there, and demand surged. In fact, that drug is now listed on the American Society of Health System Pharmacists drug shortage list, and isn’t available for many of the arthritis and lupus patients who need it.
Other disinformation seemingly appears out of nowhere. For example, in recent days, Vitamin C took center stage as Facebook posts and claims gained attention. Almost daily it seems there is someone posting a claim about a product or cure – using essential oils such as Oregano oil, eating garlic, gargling bleach (which can be deadly), using certain toothpastes, taking steroids, and even using electric hand dryers have been touted as cures.
In response to this growing problem, Amazon blocked or removed one million products from their third-party marketplace because they were deemed to be false or misleading. Facebook is trying to police claims online, and Twitter, YouTube, and Tik Tok are working to label misinformation. However, hoaxes are breaking through and there are serious consequences.
Be prepared to position your company, services, social programs, products, or brands in today’s new reality – and in context of the swirl of disinformation. We must do everything we can to reduce disinformation and its impact. Some best practices:

  1. Ensure that you have the proper legal, regulatory, and medical review processes in place for information that you publish around coronavirus.
  2. Develop scenario planning communications strategies that include a response strategy to false claims that might be made about your products, services, organization or brand.
  3. Review your cybersecurity programs and processes, and educate employees and others about phishing scams and how to avoid them.
  4. Promote good information stewardship among your employees, customers, constituents and stakeholders.

This is just a sampling of the steps you can start to take to protect your brand and your audiences to ultimately help stop the spread of COVID-19 disinformation. The most valuable commodity for organizations or brands of any type is public trust – and recent efforts preying on people’s high level of anxiety is undermining trust in government, nonprofits, scientists and companies.

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