As misinformation about the coronavirus pandemic seemingly spills into almost every nook and cranny of the internet, some public health professionals in Alaska are countering false claims and myths in an embattled space: Facebook comment threads.
Take a recent post by public health researcher and former public health nurse Dr. Jennifer Meyer. It involves a GIF of Beyonce at the Super Bowl in 2016, decked out in a black leather costume with fireworks exploding in the background. The GIF is part of a tactic Meyer uses to grab people’s attention and loop them into the discussion. Then she’ll post credible and accurate scientific information regarding the pandemic.
Meyer is part of a group known as the Public Health Information Response Team, which has been diving into the comment threads of several news and local health department Facebook pages since fall in order to counter conspiracy theories and answer questions about the vaccine, masks and the pandemic at large.
“If the whole comments section is just littered with misinformation and false claims, it has to be corrected,” said Meyer, who is an assistant professor at the University of Alaska Anchorage. “I mean, it needs to be rebutted. It can’t just exist like that.”
The team includes a group of UAA public relations students who scan the comment sections and flag certain questions or myths. From there, the expert information team jumps into the thread.
The act of engaging in online discussions is a relatively new strategy for those who work in public health.
“Largely, health professionals have stayed out of those discussions,” said Dr. Tom Hennessy, an infectious disease epidemiologist and affiliate faculty member at UAA. “But we’re recognizing we can’t do that anymore.”
Hennessy is one of about a dozen public health experts who now spend time responding to flagged Facebook comments via their personal accounts.
“And really, we’re not trying to necessarily change that person’s mind,” Hennessy said of the individual comments. “But we’re trying to speak to the other people who might be looking at that dialogue, who might be wondering if that first post was correct.”
A coronavirus infodemic
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought a tidal wave of misinformation. And while Facebook might be a hub for false claims, it can also be a place to tackle them, researchers Leticia Bode and Emily Vraga — associate professors at Georgetown University and the University of Minnesota, respectively — wrote in the Washington Post last May.
“Correcting a friend, family member or stranger in person, on email, or in some other relatively private communication may set that person straight about the facts on that topic. But doing the same on social media means that dozens of people — and perhaps thousands — can witness the correction,” Bode and Vraga wrote.
The World Health Organization calls the massive amount of misinformation cropping up online an infodemic, said Joy Chavez Mapaye, a journalism and public relations professor at UAA.
The local project came together as Mapaye was looking for something that her students could take on in one of her classes. At the same time, students in the Public Relations Student Society of America were also hunting for a project.
The pandemic had really affected UAA students, said Mary Ryan, 21, who recently graduated from the journalism and public relations program at UAA and was president of the club last year. They were stressed out and felt like a lot of things were out of their control, she said.
“I think that at least trying to combat the misinformation and confusion about it kind of gave us back a little bit of control,” Ryan said of the project.
The group is still trying to come up with ways to measure how effective their tactics are. They’re partnering with other students and hope to find out ways to quantify their impact going forward.
‘Set the record straight’
There’s a wide range of claims that the information team counters — from innocent questions to more extreme comments, such as whether the vaccine was rushed (it wasn’t) and caused deaths (it hasn’t), or claims that a vaccination involves injecting a microchip into you (it doesn’t).
It’s sometimes tempting to respond with snark, Meyer said. But she tries to focus on being kind and uses a bit of humor in her posts.
“I write not to get in an argument with somebody who’s got a really entrenched belief,” Meyer said. “I write for the audience that’s reading.”
And the responses to their comments vary — some people “like” them while other times, there is hostility and blowback, Hennessy said.
If someone is hostile, Hennessy usually ignores them. The information team is not getting into name-calling. That’s not what they’re about, he said.
“We’re not at all interested in getting into fights with folks, or making anybody feel bad or any of that,” Hennessy said. “What we’re trying to do is to set the record straight and educate.”
In a response to a recent comment regarding mistrust of the vaccine, Hennessy responded:
“Let’s not be misled by misinformation. Notice how people who oppose the vaccine use words that produce fear and emotional responses? That’s on purpose, to get us reacting with fear instead of reason. And if you want reliable information you can use credible sources,” he wrote in the comment, with a link to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website.
Meyer said she tries to mobilize people into fighting things like the new COVID-19 variants. And to draw people in, that’s when she’ll turn to Beyonce GIFs and “Saturday Night Live” memes, like one featuring Kate McKinnon playing her character Dr. Wenowdis.
“You want to fight new variants? I do.” Meyer wrote in a recent post. “We need to get the vaccine out more quickly with high uptake. Every new infection provides the opportunity for mutations. Don’t let the virus have the upper hand...We can do this Alaska, let’s go!!!” (Cue image of Beyonce striding down the street in the “Hold Up” music video.)
Barry Piser, a public information officer at the Anchorage Health Department, said that responding to comments on the department’s Facebook page can be hard in the middle of a pandemic — it’s a lot of work.
“It’s a great tool to have (the response team) be able to step in — and especially with their backgrounds as public health experts — and help to dispel rumors and misinformation,” Piser said, “when that type of thing could potentially save lives if just the right person reads it.”