Ever since the outbreak of the coronavirus (Covid-19) in Israel, the evening news has provided a recurring stage for the Prime Minister and the Ministry of Health to address the public about the pandemic. This public outreach serves an important function, reaching millions of Israeli viewers with updated health information. However, this top-down approach overlooks a critical factor in the public’s understanding of this historic event - the effects of exposure to misinformation about the virus from other channels on public attitudes and behavior.
The Ministry of Health may not wish to engage with information that is incorrect, or to provide counterarguments against myths and false claims about the virus. However, by ignoring this ‘elephant in the room’ they are allowing misinformation to continue to spread and influence the public. The Ministry of Health’s approach also shows a lack of awareness of the changes that have taken place in the way in which we encounter, or look for, health information. The public communication environment is now crowded with different information sources. It is difficult for most people to distinguish between their different sources of information and to assess how credible the information is. In contrast to decades ago, official government announcements are not the only source of health information for the public, or even the primary one.
According to research, including my own studies on health information seeking and its effects on the public, people obtain health information from social media, from websites, through forums, and Internet searches, and through other channels. This information circulates widely, especially if it is seen to be new or surprising. Exposure to misinformation influences public beliefs, and is likely to influence how people think about the virus - how it is transmitted, who is at risk, and what behaviors they can adopt to reduce their risk, as well as that of others.
The coronavirus-induced lockdown has made our lives more chaotic and raised anxiety about our health and the likelihood of infection. This crisis is also likely to motivate people to seek out information to fill information gaps, or to pay more attention to information that circulates on social media. It is therefore important that the Ministry of Health should monitor the information about Covid-19 circulating in non-official channels, rather than ignore this stream of information. It should identify the information gaps the public is confused about, and the myths or false claims that are being spread through social media channels.
By identifying and acknowledging the claims that the public is likely to hear, and explaining (with evidence to support their arguments) why they are not credible, the Ministry of Health can help reduce the influence of misinformation. This approach would also help people stop the spread of inaccurate information, since they would be forewarned about it, and would be more likely to identify misinformation when they came across it, and less likely to spread it to others.
Dr. Nehama Lewis is a senior lecturer in the Department of Communication, University of Haifa
Published by Globes, Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on April 26, 2020
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