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Health fact vs harmful fiction – the role of communications in navigating the fake news era

Kate Pogson

At today’s inaugural PRCA Healthcare Conference, I discussed the increasing prominence of ‘fake news’ in health and explored how communicators can balance the discourse.

It is no secret that fake news has become an ‘expression du jour’.  In healthcare, the consequences of mis-information or fake news can be incredibly serious.  The ongoing noise and attention of anti-vax groups and their associated arguments has led the World Health Organisation to list ‘Vaccine Hesitancy’ as one of the world’s most significant public health threats. This is despite conclusive evidence to demonstrate the benefit of vaccinations on an individual’s health, as well as the broader population.

What is going wrong? How do we as a communicators counter mis-information and what can we learn from the increased interest in behavioural psychology approaches to evidence-base our approach?

The first point is that fake news is not intrinsically new. The propensity for individuals to listen and act upon information which is unfounded is a historic one. But at the heart of how we process information are several psychological principles which communicators needs to better understand:

  • We are influenced by people like ourselves: ideas and behaviours are transmitted through networks and we are more likely to listen to ‘experts’ who share our own values. ‘Similarity’ very much trumps ‘accuracy’ when it comes to the people we listen to. One example of this was a study from the group, Health Feedback, which analysed the pervasiveness of fake news on Facebook and other social media. Of the ten most shared articles pertaining to health in 2018 analysed by the research, seven contained misleading or false information
  • We are biased towards the social norm. Telling people that 65 percent of patients missed their GP appointment in that quarter is not going to spur the audience into being good future citizens, they are more likely to think ‘well, I won’t try hard if everyone is doing it’!
  • We suffer from confirmation bias and strongly prefer news we agree with – even worse, we tend to overlook evidence which contradicts with what we already think is true! (she says, frantically Googling studies to tell me that Sauvignon Blanc actually has a net health benefit).

So, while the appetite and impact of fake news isn’t new, the rise of social and digital platforms has allowed this intrinsic behaviour to be amplified. Namely:

  • Digital algorithms serve up content you have already engaged with and prioritises influencers over content
  • Search makes it easier to ‘prove’ things we already believe and ignore contradictory evidence
  • Like buttons and other digital voting tools make it easy for us to commit to positions and less likely that we will change our mind in the future
  • Digital media models make opinion as well as fact an information currency

What can we do about it? How can we best balance fake news, especially in healthcare, so that patients have ready access to accurate information to support healthy decision making?

  • Think messenger over message. Yes, I’m sure your primary investigator on the phase III product trial is world-renowned, but they may not resonate with the non-specialist clinical or patient audience you want to reach. If we are intrinsically more likely to listen more intently to ‘people like me’, how can we bring these voices to the fore in our media activity?
  • Fish where the fish are. Using digital paid strategies, we can create and serve owned content which infiltrates and balances less robust or evidence-based content
  • Don’t forget the power of below the line comments. Jameela Jamil’s calling b*llsh*t on Khloe Kardashian’s weight-loss Instagram post received as many likes and shares as the original posting. The power of right to reply spoke volumes here
  • Education, education, education. Cr*p science can only be allowed to be so if people cannot see the flaws in the study design or the conclusions. There is a role to provide context and clarity more quickly to help people see fact from fiction

If there is one truth in all of the dialogue about news which is fake, it’s that this isn’t going away. But hopefully, we are all becoming a little more sophisticated in our roles as communicators to ensure the balance is redressed.

Kate Pogson is Head of Health