In the middle of an overwhelming influx of stories about coronavirus disease, misinformation spreads fast.
Health writers are in a unique position to be role models for how to write during a pandemic, writing clearly about COVID-19, how to counter COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy and how to curate an evidence-based social media presence.
Using correct terms (SARS-CoV-2 for the virus, COVID-19 for the illness) is just the beginning.
Experienced health communicators know not to lend credibility to myths like “holding your breath for 10 seconds means you don’t have COVID-19,” but incomplete information based on preliminary evidence can be more complicated.
You can repost responsibly
I have seen politicians and healthcare professionals with good intentions repost incorrect or outdated information. It is your responsibility as a health writer to help keep social media content current and accurate. You are on the information front lines.
Acknowledge when data is incomplete
A study with 25 subjects is interesting, but may not be reproducible. News feeds are currently flooded with links to studies with a small number of subjects, so make sure to include words that highlight the quality of evidence. When physicians heard about a preliminary study, some wrote hydroxychloroquine prescriptions for themselves, leading to a drug shortage
Look at the publication date
At this point, two-day-old information about treatment protocols or number of cases is too old to repost. It is okay to post an older article (no more than about a week) if it is a human interest story, though.
Use sources that are updated frequently
If you see a link for an article that was written a few days ago, find out if the journalist used a source that was updated today – like the WHO website.
Find the primary source
If an article reports on a clinical study, include the direct link to the abstract. If you only see a screenshot without author attribution, find the author or don’t repost. False physician narratives are still making the rounds on Facebook.
Check for readability
Decide whether the post is understandable without medical training. In a tragic consequence of misunderstood health information, a man died after ingesting chloroquine phosphate intended for fish tanks.
Represent multiple viewpoints
Listen to healthcare professionals and scientists tell their stories. Listen to the retail workers, truck drivers, and daycare providers. The whole story of this pandemic and its spread only emerges when multiple perspectives are shared.
Social media platforms connect users to government-run websites
Information isn’t easy to aggregate, so a sensible plan is to direct people to places where data is already collected. Several social media platforms have adopted this strategy, while Facebook has taken it a step further with a COVID-19 Information Center.
I surveyed a small number of colleagues to find out the results of their COVID-19 social media searches. This is not an exhaustive list, but most examples I was given directed users to health information websites run by each respective country’s government.
All of the websites below include information about how to wash hands, keep social distance, and quarantine. The sites also link to resources about ongoing COVID-19 clinical trials, such as this list of vaccine studies.
As health writers, you can highlight the updated information on government websites, and point out if new data from a local health news source conflicts with current government data.
Screenshots of COVID-19 searches
As each day passes, social media platforms are increasing their reach, so keep in mind that the searches below were completed between March 20th and March 31st, 2020.
Facebook in Australia directs users to the Australian Government website
Twitter in the UK directs users to the National Health Service (NHS)
YouTube in Canada directs users to the Public Health Agency of Canada
Twitter in South Korea directs users to the Ministry of Health and Welfare
YouTube in Japan directs users to The Ministry of Health, Labour, and Welfare
Instagram in Singapore directs users to the Ministry of Health
In the US, TikTok directs users to WHO videos, Pinterest to WHO and CDC pins, and Twitter to the CDC website.
While we work as a global community to #FlattenTheCurve, health communicators will be needed at every step. I want to thank all of you for your hard work and dedication.