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New Health Playbook Helps Combat Mis- and Disinformation on COVID Vaccines

By Twig Mowatt

To combat the impact of misleading claims about vaccines across social and traditional media, MITRE developed a playbook to help public health officials create effective local campaigns to increase vaccine adoption and fight misinformation.

"Some of these new vaccines will rewrite your DNA."

"Dr. Fraud and the Gates foundation stand to make billions from a forced Covid vaccine! "

"Behind every rushed drug in history is a trail of death."

Tweets like these, with false or misleading claims about the COVID-19 vaccines, are increasingly common. Social media has helped to promote access to important public health information, but it has also created great challenges. The spread of mis/disinformation online excludes scientists, experts, and healthcare workers from key conversations and can erode trust.

MITRE’s COVID-19 Health Communication Playbook is designed to help public health communicators better understand and navigate the dynamic landscape of communication about COVID-19 vaccination in disproportionately affected communities. This is increasingly important given that about one in five U.S. adults say they will not get a vaccine to protect against the coronavirus, according to a national poll released in mid-April by Monmouth University.

Vaccine Hesitancy Puts the Country at Risk

"Mis- and disinformation continue to be a public safety issue—which could impact COVID-19 vaccination rates," says Denise Scannell, MITRE’s chief scientist for health communication science. "As the nation strives to control the pandemic by reaching herd immunity, any delay or refusal to be vaccinated puts the whole country at risk and exacerbates long-standing health inequities."

Misinformation refers to unintentional spreading of false information, while disinformation is intentional promotion of false or misleading information.

The playbook uses MITRE’s Health Information Persuasion Exploration (HIPE™) framework, which provides a way to detect, analyze, design, and evaluate mis- and disinformation.

The playbook specifically targets COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy. It offers evidence-based, data-driven health communication strategies and messaging through social listening tools—Social Integrity™ and SQUINT™—that identify the mis- and disinformation that’s trending and being amplified at a national level. The social listening tools and the playbook can also be used at the local level, targeting a specific audience, to help design and deliver effective responses, and evaluate the results.

The elements in the playbook were derived from a two-part process undertaken by two MITRE teams: Social Integrity and Health Communication Science. The former had the challenge of searching and processing datasets at scale—including Twitter, Reddit, Instagram, Facebook, local news, and newspapers—nationally and for specific communities. The latter team then designed productive responses to these messages.

The Social Integrity team, led by Jennifer Mathieu, had to drill deep into its nationwide datasets to find the posts indicating topics of concern to specific counties.

Fighting False Claims with Facts Isn’t Likely to Work

With these messages in hand, MITRE health communication scientists were able to not only design effective responses but recommend ways to test their ability to resonate with community members.

For instance, combating mis/disinformation with just facts may not be as effective as other message designs. It is also important to select trusted community members to deliver the message, such as community opinion leaders, church leaders, and community healthcare providers. In most cases, understanding the beliefs, values and social norms of a specific community is critical in designing effective health communication messaging and strategies.

"You don't want to launch a direct attack on someone’s belief systems and values, so it's much more effective to wrap your message into common value statements and stories," says Scannell, who is lead author on COVID-19 Vaccine Discourse on Twitter: A Content Analysis of Persuasion, Sentiment, and Mis/Disinformation, which will be published in the next few months.

Scannell and Mathieu began collaborating in January 2020 as the threat from the coronavirus was just emerging. They initially focused on COVID-19 prevention measures, but then pivoted to vaccine hesitancy since it was going to be a critical inflection point.

"This issue impacts every county in the country," Scannell notes. "We wanted to come up with a way to scale the approach, so public health officials have access to resources to help address mis- and disinformation specific to their communities."