In the fight against COVID 19, words matter. Messaging around virus prevention and precautions has become more politically charged than ever. For some people wearing a mask or getting vaccinated is considered a political statement. But how did we get here and how can we talk about public health messaging?
Lu Tang is an associate professor specializing in health communication at Texas A&M. She told Texas Standard that getting news and information from social media and other sources where content is tailored to our interests makes it hard for facts or data that contradict our existing beliefs to be seen as credible.
Listen to the interview above or read the transcript below to learn more about why messaging about COVID-19 is so challenging for public health authorities.
This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:
Texas Standard: As you witness governments try to articulate the importance of the vaccine and wearing masks, have there been any obvious moments where you’re like, ‘oh, why did they put it like that?’ Or ‘that’s not the best way to get the point across?’
Lu Tang: Well, I think in terms of the construction of messages they are fine. The problem of the polarization that you are talking about is caused by the channels through which we are getting our information. So in this day and age, the media landscape is very fragmented and we get information mostly from social media, especially for the young people. So what you get is what your friends, your family, your classmates are posting on social media, as well as what social media platforms are recommending to you. And in order to provide you with attractive information, social media platforms are increasingly just push[ing] the same kind of limited information to you again and again. As a result, people just live in their little filter bubbles. They’re exposed to the same information, if you are pro-vaccine or anti-vaccine again and again. So the governmental or the public health messages about promoting vaccines, promoting masks might not even get to the kind of population that need that information. It’s not a problem of the messaging, but the channel.
Have we perhaps passed a kind of point of no return when it comes to not just how medical information is communicated to the general public, but how it’s perceived that there are already camps?
Yes, everybody has heard of information about how useful and effective vaccines and masks are. But if you consider those people who are right now anti-vaccine or anti-face masks, they probably get information that talk[s] about the advantages of those prevention measures, once in a while. But then you need to understand these people are inundated by the opposite messages that say, ‘it’s a conspiracy, masks don’t work, vaccines have long-term health side effect[s]’ and all that. They are constantly being bombarded with the opposite side of the information. So whatever one or two messages that talk about the positives, they don’t matter. They are drowned out.
Is there a more constructive approach than shutting down those with messages that seem to be largely disinformation?
It is very difficult to censor social media because social media companies, they have the financial incentive to allow the anti-vaccine and anti-mask information on their platform to increase their profit and increase clicks. I know that some of the social media companies, in fact, a lot of them, are trying to label potential misinformation and take down videos containing vaccine misinformation. But there is only so much that they can do because they are driven by profit and stockholders. So looking at what some other countries are doing, governmental policies [or] regulations might be one of the ways towards better management of information quality on social media. And companies also have a corporate social responsibility. So when the society or the government has policy, or has general pressure for them to improve the quality of the information that is circulated on their platforms, they will then have the incentive to make adjustment[s] for the company’s image, because corporate social responsibility can also potentially contribute to the bottom line of these companies.