President-elect Joe Biden has rightly put the public health crisis at the top of his priority list. This shift away from chaos and toward coherence should help to stem the uncontrolled flow of falsehoods that thrive amid uncertainty. Yet more needs to be done by a government whose leader would rather set the record straight than spend his day warping it on Twitter: The anti-vaccination movement learned its way around the Web long before covid-19 struck, and the disinformation war it has started even before these lifesaving medicines are widely available must be countered with a preemptive defense.
How? Trying to prevent propaganda discouraging vaccines altogether is futile. While social media sites should continue to take a tough line against false claims surrounding covid-19, promoting authoritative sources in their place, that strategy depends on the quality of those sources — and the administration has the highest authority out there.
Researchers have identified the importance of filling “data deficits” to give people the right answers before opportunists can give them the wrong ones. This must occur in a manner that explains without overwhelming, as complexity can push people toward the comfort of simple answers no matter their veracity. The government needs to figure out how to communicate with the country’s citizens about vaccines frequently, specifically and sensitively, tailoring its messages to existing misconceptions as well as to different types of audiences.
This conundrum must sit at the center of the incoming government’s coronavirus response — which means, first, that the task force devoted to combating the disease ought to have at least one member who is an expert in misinformation. Together with experts in medicine, this person could refine both the messages to send and how to send them. Alex Stamos of Stanford’s Internet Observatory suggests repurposing the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency’s “Rumor Control” website, previously dedicated to election integrity, to refute the inaccuracies of the day with links to primary sources, coordinating with the Food & Drug Administration, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Operation Warp Speed. Refuting anticipated inaccuracies would be helpful, too, as experts can track what narratives are brewing before they take off into near-virality. Partnerships with platforms will also be key.
Whatever the method, the aim is clear: to spread counternarratives that are as compelling as the disinformation narratives already plaguing our society but that also have the benefit of being true.