Misinformation is becoming one of the greatest public health concerns of our time. Thanks to the meteoric rise of alternative media platforms and social media influencers, the thinning of credible information gatekeepers and a growing mistrust in government and traditional media, we now find ourselves in the midst of the perfect storm. As a society we are on information overload, and the leaves of truth are getting lost within the forest. As such, more and more people are making health decisions based on values and ideologies rather than factual, research-based scientific data.
Despite the best efforts of public health officials and social marketing white hats (good guys), misinformation about health spreads much further and faster than factual information. It is a problem today’s health officials recognize, but struggle to combat.
Part of the problem is that there are far too many communications channels available today to manage, and public trust in public services is very low. Being that most public health officials, and funding, come from government, the public trust issue is of major concern. According to research, public trust in the government remains near historic lows. Only 17% of Americans today say they can trust the government to do what is right “just about always” (3%) or “most of the time” (14%). Overall, only a third of Americans now trust their government “to do what is right”—a decline of 14 percentage points from the previous year.
A recent example of the impacts low public trust and misinformation can have on public health is with childhood vaccinations. We are seeing a rise in the anti-vaccer movement, with more parents now refusing to vaccinate their children than a decade ago, thanks in part to a mistrust in both government and the pharmaceutical industry. The impact of this is unneeded childhood deaths, and the return of diseases like measles, which were once eradicated from the United States.
Fueling this growing movement is the large amount of non-validated information on vaccines from non-medical sources, virtual community groups for and against vaccination and the difficulty of assessing information sources. For example, this past December, Alex Jones and his InfoWars platform, which receives well over 8 million unique visitors per month, promoted a story about triplets becoming instantly Autistic after being vaccinated. It spread like wildfire, being reposted several times by other sites, reaching millions and millions of people. There is no doubt, this influenced some of his followers to not vaccinate their children.
Misinformation like this can profoundly threaten sound vaccination programs. Prior to the InfoWars piece, it took over a decade of time, effort and money to generate the evidence needed to dispel the myth that there was a possible link between the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine and autism – which stemmed from a study widely discredited on scientific grounds. Multiple studies of both the MMR vaccine and of thimerosal, a preservative used in some vaccines, have found no causal association with the development of autism. However, there is a good chance that the InfoWars example above undid much of this work. A decade of work damaged in days because of a slick video promoted by the right source, aimed at the right audience.
In order to fix the misinformation problem, public health officials must first reverse engineer it. They must fully understand how misinformation works, and then use similar tactics to spread good, reliable information to the groups that need it the most in a timely manner. This means continually monitoring information and responding to it quickly. This will take a change in culture, as often government organizations are slow to respond, or fail to respond to misinformation.
Another key to battling misinformation is understanding that for a lot of the population, perception is reality. Complex in its simplicity, people respond to situations the way that they do because of perception. By nature, the way each of us perceives the world is as unique as our fingerprints. Our perceptions are built around genetics, the socialization process, education, life experience and other influencers, such as the media. Of the things just listed, peers, social influencers and the media (social, traditional, etc.) seem to play the biggest role in influencing people’s perceptions on things they can’t experience directly.
That is why it is utterly important, no matter how big or small a public health issue might be, that public health officials proactively over communicate. Whether it is via blogs/vlogs, podcasts, social media channels, online comment threads or good ‘ol media interviews, officials must make sure to get their story out to the public. In the court of public opinion, no matter how small, the side that frequently communicates best often wins .
That being said, communication on its own isn’t enough. Public health officials also have to get into the minds of the audiences they want to communicate to. This may seem to be a near impossible task, because even with the technology available it is impossible to get into the minds of every person consuming information today. And that is why understanding archetypes and tailoring communication to them is so very, very important.
Archetypes are universal patterns of behaviors that, once discovered, can help people better understand themselves and how they relate to others. In their book, The Hero and the Outlaw, Margaret Mark and Carol S. Pearson had the idea to apply this to brands in order to improve how brands communicate with customers.
There are 12 primary archetypes that brand experts often refer to, but I will focus on one, “The Nurturer” (also known as The Helper or The Parent), for example purposes.
The motto of the nurturer is “we rise by lifting others,” and brands like Volvo, Pampers and Campbell’s are known for fitting into this archetype. Customers connect with this brand archetype because it promises protection and emotional warmth.
It will feel out of character if a nurturer brand suddenly appears driven by self-interest, over the interest of others. Hypothetically speaking, if Volvo were to discover a major product defect, and choose to hide this matter rather than own up to it and fix it, the Volvo brand would suffer immensely. Conversely, by embracing its brand archetype, and letting the public know about a product defect immediately, Volvo would appear to be a champion despite the product defect.
Alex Jones relies heavily on his brand archetype, The Outlaw, to transition misinformation into an opportunity to build his brand equity within his target audience. I would say that the measure of success for this approach can be seen by the fact that Alex Jones has millions of followers.
Going forward, those in the field of public health and social marketing need to ask: What is the right role for social marketing in promoting public health? Is it merely to inform, or is it to persuade, build trust, combat misinformation and transform behavior?
I believe that social marketing can go beyond information to change beliefs and social norms. It can redefine a problem and redefine solutions, to build support for systems and environmental changes that are for the greater good. Leveraging targeted messaging for target audiences, social marketing can better combat misinformation.
Brian Fitzgerald, Senior Account Executive at Ackermann Marketing and PR, may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.