Michelle Nealy

Reservoir Communications Group recently assembled the diverse experts and seasoned strategic partners of the Reservoir Advocacy & Alliance Network (RAAN) to discuss the negative impacts of misinformation and disinformation in the health care space – and what we can do to address it.

While both misinformation and disinformation can deceive audiences with false information that is widely disseminated, disinformation is intentionally, maliciously deceptive. In recent years the two terms have become widely used in relation to COVID-19 vaccines, but neither are new. Misinformation and disinformation in health care have been prevalent for decades. Home remedies touted as cures and gossip purported as medical advice is not a new phenomenon. Even widespread falsehoods like the idea that the Measles, Mumps and Rubella vaccination caused autism was based on a single, erroneous study that was later retracted that emerged years before social media.

During a virtual convening, our RAAN experts discussed the ways in which misinformation and disinformation impact diverse populations, hinder public health organizations and government entities from disseminating accurate information, and prevent people from receiving life-saving care. The conversation focused on the amplification of misinformation and disinformation, the lack of trust in medical and government institutions, and potential solutions for combatting misinformation and disinformation in the health care space.

Discussion Highlights:

  • “The stakes of misinformation and disinformation are not just political…they are also people’s individual health choices; we are literally talking life and death.”
  • “Many people, in many communities, that might be susceptible to misinformation have no reason to trust health care authorities or our health care system because it quite frankly performs very poorly. If you haven’t been able to get the help you need or if you can’t afford health insurance…why would you have any trust when the crisis comes along and you’re being told to do x, y or z?”
  • “Misinformation does not have to necessarily come from a nefarious place to have a negative impact.”
  • “Social media makes everyone a self-proclaimed expert. People get positive feedback for saying the wrong thing. Multiple voices saying the same thing on social media make it harder for audiences to discern who is really an expert and who is not.”
  • “If it's just trying to educate your employees about the importance of vaccinations, you're running up against misinformation. If you're trying to get a policy objective to advance in Congress or through the administration, you're probably getting both misinformation and disinformation. They are clearly both very problematic.”
  • “Cancer is a major target for medical disinformation. How can patients and individuals know where to turn for valid trusted information? Patient foundations have really taken a front seat to help curate the information that's available online. They’ve also been instrumental in moderating online content to prevent widespread misinformation.”

RAAN experts also discussed several solutions that communicators can utilize to combat misinformation and disinformation in the health care space, including:

  • Identifying key trusted messengers in the community you are trying to reach. 
  • Underscoring the value of patient groups and their ability to serve as trusted messengers, disseminate accurate information, and actively moderate online spaces.
  • Building trust in the health care system by making it better, and making it work for working people and people of color.
  • Encouraging citizens to consume news and social media responsibly, double checking facts and seeking reliable sources.  

As health care communicators continue to navigate social media and other channels, they must confront a media landscape in which experts are not universally respected, and science as a field has been questioned. By working together to tailor accurate communications from trusted sources, we can make significant progress in combatting current misinformation and disinformation efforts.