As the world continues to weather the coronavirus pandemic, reliable information from public health experts will continue to be a necessity. At the same time, these experts will still face headwinds in getting their message out to a weary or even disenchanted public.

By Victoria Smith and Alicia Wanless originally for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

A common refrain among those worried about influence operations is that the amplification of truth will triumph over disinformation. Influence operations are organized activities used to affect an audience or outcome. And disinformation, or the intentional spreading of misleading or untrue information, is a common tactic in such operations. On the surface, this truth-focused approach seems simple. If truth is preferable to lies, then educating people to easily identify the difference between accurate information and disinformation would lead them to shun untruthful alternatives. The coronavirus pandemic offers a unique opportunity to analyze this approach.

Today’s digitally connected information space is an extremely challenging operating environment. Communicating the truth nowadays is a lot like hollering into a sprawling, open bazaar where some people might be straining to hear, but the vast majority are making noise and going about their own business. In this market, attention rather than valid information is the most valuable commodity. Many actors attempt to be heard in a crisis. This includes actors with both good and bad intentions, and myriad bystanders who take up and spread content not so much with a motive in mind, but as a quick response to the information they consume.

In mapping online discourse around the coronavirus month after month, the media monitoring company Graphika found that the share of scientific and medical voices dropped as other actors joined in the discussion. Competitors for attention, like propagandists, use the opportunity to shift the narrative or win media coverage given the sensation that discovery of their activities causes. The interconnected nature of the web allows disinformation, including conspiracy theories,5 to spread rapidly around the world.

Add to this cacophony additional dangers like increased cyber threats—attacks on healthcare system computers, spoofed government websites, a “667 percent increase in malicious phishing emails . . . using the coronavirus,” and scams selling fake cures. This information environment is not just noisy but dangerous.

To successfully influence public behavior, public health officials must project their message above the noise to establish and maintain credibility. However, these officials often find themselves at a disadvantage when it comes to those spreading disinformation. While the messages of public health officials reflect current scientific understanding and change slowly over time, disinformation comes and goes at high speeds. If a public health official loses credibility, winning it back can be all but impossible; if disinformation is debunked, one narrative dies, only to be replaced by countless others.

This study examines how three key public health experts are communicating in this challenging environment. They include Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in the United States; Theresa Tam, the chief public health officer of Canada; and Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer for England, in the United Kingdom (UK), who is advising the prime minister and other leading UK officials. According to Ipsos polling data, citizens in twenty-two countries around the world, including in the three countries studied, rated scientists (60 percent) and doctors (56 percent) to be the most trusted professions in the world, while politicians were considered to be the least trusted (9 percent). If truth can triumph over disinformation, then public health officials appear well-placed for the battle.

To understand the challenges public health officials face in such a crisis, it makes sense to analyze their official communications with the public, media coverage mentioning them, and more broadly, media coverage about the coronavirus during the first three months of the crisis. While there are clearly many challenges facing public health officials as they jostle for public attention, three core issues stand out: questioning the messenger, politicizing the messenger, and mistrusting the messenger.

  • Questioning the messenger: The ease with which a diverse chorus of voices can now criticize the messaging put out by public health officials is a common challenge. Social media has made it easier for almost anyone to contribute their opinions. A preference for evidence-based decisionmaking opens public health officials up to criticism, as they are reluctant to stake claims concretely if insufficient evidence is available to back up a position. This challenge is exemplified by the public debate around wearing face masks.
  • Politicizing the messenger: The dueling necessities of political support and publicity to reach as wide an audience as possible is particularly challenging for public health officials. Politicians can both help and hinder the efforts of public health officials to be heard. Politicians who ignore the advice of public health officials make it much harder for those attempting to convey the truth as it is understood at any given moment to convince the public to adopt protective measures, such as physical distancing. Even when politicians are cooperative, there is a risk of opposition politicians using the opportunity to attack the ruling government by criticizing public health officials, particularly if the measures taken are not perceived to be successful.
  • Mistrusting the messenger: For public health officials communicating in a crisis, establishing and maintaining trust is crucial but also extremely difficult. Trust can be eroded through politicization or perceptions of being too closely tied to governing politicians. Trust is also challenged if the public health officials’ messaging changes too widely over time, which can lead to perceptions that they are being untruthful. Public health officials must communicate clearly and authoritatively. Yet, if they are too certain of a specific fact that is later discovered to be untrue, it opens a crack that detractors can exploit.

Cover Image: A poster warning about transmission of tuberculosis from the Library of Congress dated 14 May 1941. Source: Wikimedia

About Author

La Generalista is the online identity of Alicia Wanless – a researcher and practitioner of strategic communications for social change in a Digital Age. Alicia is the director of the Partnership for Countering Influence Operations at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. With a growing international multi-stakeholder community, the Partnership aims to foster evidence-based policymaking to counter threats within the information environment. Wanless is currently a PhD Researcher at King’s College London exploring how the information environment can be studied in similar ways to the physical environment. She is also a pre-doctoral fellow at Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation, and was a tech advisor to Aspen Institute’s Commission on Information Disorder. Her work has been featured in Lawfare, The National Interest, Foreign Policy, and CBC.

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