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Now that COVID-19 appears to be subsiding, it’s time to focus on all the remarkable lessons that we’ve learned during this three-year pandemic. One of those lessons concerns how easily misinformation can travel across social media during a pandemic. It’s getting harder and harder to tell what’s real and what’s not, thanks to all the misinformation and disinformation out there.
Public health organizations and government agencies need to be able to transmit their messages quickly and efficiently across social media, without worrying that these messages will be ignored or misinterpreted. And they need to make sure that myths and conspiracy theories cooked up online do not interfere with the overall public health response, especially when it involves vaccination.
How to adapt social media for the next pandemic
There appears to be a very real relationship between social media misinformation, media literacy and vaccine hesitancy. One major reason why vaccination rates in the United States have fallen below expected levels is due to all the misinformation that has accompanied the rollout of the vaccine. People just can’t seem to filter out the misinformation. Despite all the efforts to convince citizens that the vaccine is safe and effective, many people remain unconvinced, and the chief culprit appears to be social media.
Back in 2020, researchers launched a study of 2,000 participants to see if media illiteracy might be the hidden key to vaccine hesitancy. What they found was relatively startling: individuals who were less savvy about social media and how journalism works were also more likely to be vaccine hesitant. The researchers measured media literacy with a series of 9 questions, to see how much participants knew about different news organizations, and how journalism works. If participants were only able to answer three or fewer of these questions, the researchers considered them to be “media illiterate.”
The questions were not outlandishly difficult. You didn’t need a college degree to answer them. For example, if you are shown two different websites, would you be able to recognize which one comes from a for-profit media organization, and which one comes from a nonprofit media organization? Can you distinguish between a news site that reports its own news versus one that simply aggregates the news from across the web?
How to stop misinformation on social media?
Given that half of all Americans rely on social media for their news, the topic of media literacy is very relevant. The more literate a person is, the researchers found, the more likely he or she will be able to recognize the difference between information and misinformation. The researchers found that infographics were very useful in countering misinformation. The World Health Organization, for example, found that a simple infographic was useful in countering the misperception that a long, hot bath might be more effective than a vaccine in preventing COVID-19.
The big problem, of course, is that COVID-19 has become incredibly politicized. Simply having an opinion about lockdowns, mask measures, or vaccines can get you embroiled in a nasty social media fight these days. One could even argue that the study used to generate conclusions about vaccine hesitancy became politicized in its own way. Any guesses as to who all the stupid media illiterates were? Yep, the survey found that “political conservatives” were most likely to be media illiterate.
Thus, while it’s easy to applaud any organization that is looking to stop media illiteracy and to clamp down on misinformation across the web, it’s not so clear whether this approach will work the next time there’s a new pandemic. Will steps to fight media illiteracy work and help? That’s the million-dollar question.