Talking trust, Dr Google and the social media side of COVID-19

COVID-19 and social media

Murdoch communication lecturers share why clear communication matters during a health crisis.

Health communication, specifically in the digital space, has become a vital link between organisations and their isolated audiences during COVID-19.

It plays an integral role in bridging this gap between information, statistics, government decrees and the needs, wants and fears of the Australian community.

From the initial outbreak in China, November 2019, communication responses have varied across the globe, from non-existent to overwhelming.

The use of digital platforms, like social media, has been a point of difference in the way organisations and the public are sharing COVID-19 information from previous health crises such as the Ebola Virus Disease or EVD (2014-2016), Swine Flu H1N1 (2009) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome or SARS (2003)outbreaks.

In Australia, websites have been developed by myriad organisations aiming to curb the spread of misinformation and aid in ‘flattening the curve’. Social media also appears to play a key role in the spread of both misinformation and credible information.

How have websites become lifelines?

Renae Desai FPRIA, Lecturer in Strategic Communication, Health and Web Communication at Murdoch University

In times of crisis, people look to Google to help guide them to the information they need to allay their fears, soothe their stress and temper their concerns. We have become so accustomed to Dr Google that we often overlook obvious information inaccuracies to get to what we want quickly, regardless of the source.

COVID-19 has exacerbated this potentially life-threatening problem, leading Google, Facebook and others to finally act to ensure that credible, accurate information is served up to the content hungry worldwide audience; something that the Health on the Net Foundation, the original digital health information accrediting body, has been working tirelessly to achieve for over two decades.

Now is the time. Authoritative health communication on the web has never been so important. With numerous complex and at times confusing messages flying through cyberspace, it is difficult for people to navigate right from wrong, fake news from real news, fact from fiction.

Websites have become the go to places for information from all types of organisations looking to communicate critical messages to their communities. Whether it be central governments, universities, airlines, insurers or supermarket chains, websites are the repositories of vital content waiting to be sent out to the world through social networks, mobile apps, games, content sharing platforms and the media.

Health communication relies on timely, accurate and engaging information dissemination, whilst taking into deep consideration the complexities of health and digital literacy, cultural nuance, ethics, privacy and data security and the ever-expanding digital divide. Websites provide the platform to allow engagement with people who would otherwise not have access to life saving information.

The humble website has become the lifeline we all need in social isolation and beyond.

Why is authoritative communication by leaders important?

Dr Catherine Archer FPRIA, Lecturer and researcher in Strategic Communication, Health and Social Media Communication at Murdoch University

The importance of clear and calm communication by our leaders, governments and organisations (including our employers) has been thrown into stark relief with the arrival of COVID-19.

The Edelman Trust Barometer is an international survey by the major global communications consultancy and a recent COVID-19 special survey showed people are turning to their employers for information. Perhaps this is a skewed result given that Edelman is based in the USA. However, we all know that our employers’ communications are increasingly important, and employees don’t want platitudes.

In Australia, our citizens are still relying on our State and Federal Government for trusted information. Our own Western Australian Premier, Mark McGowan’s, recent approval rating of 89% (according to Newspoll) – a rating unheard of for politicians ordinarily – shows the style and substance of his Government’s actions, and his communication, have resonated strongly with West Australians of all political persuasions. A quick poll of my students shows they believe it’s his sense of steadfastness, honesty and basic ‘human-ness’ that have been factors. His daily press conferences, with the Health Minister Roger Cook at his side, have also been a factor, as they have streamed live into our studies, living rooms and kitchens via Facebook Live and through mainstream media channels on the evening news. 

Glimpses of humour, with the jog and kebab example, and a recent shout of appreciation from a constituent in a car (complete with an F-bomb) have resonated with our Australian culture.  The Prime Minister, after some early missteps, has also increased his approval ratings, though not as sharply as Mr McGowan’s. 

The role of the ‘social media influencer’ has also seen some scrutiny, with celebrities like Pete Evans spruiking strange and dangerous ‘cures’ for COVID-19. Those influencers who have seen their glamourous, brand-funded lifestyles cut short have also been easy targets for mainstream media (and disenchanted followers), for example when complaining about being in isolation in a 5-star hotel. In some parts of the world, the social media influencers have gone a step too far, with the UAE Government arresting influencers who had suggested to their followers to flout Government rules.
Communication that meets the needs of different stakeholders is crucial. Some fantastic examples include some of the efforts to explain COVID-19 to children (for example a special Playschool episode) or different sections of the community.

Finally, the importance of social media applications (and trust in Government use of our data) has also been highlighted by the Australian Government’s pitch to get us to download the COVIDSafe app. Again, judging by a casual poll of some of my students, there is both apathy and mistrust of data breaches, amongst younger voters, while acknowledging we already give away enormous amounts of data through our use of other apps and platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Google.

What has emerged is that health literacy and web literacy need to be taught from a young age and, while scientists continue to search for a vaccine and/or treatment for the virus, the role of trusted and clear science, government and health communication and action from ‘authoritative sources’, amidst the noise,  misinformation on social and mainstream media, throughout a pandemic and ‘infodemic’ has never been more important, to limit and manage this global and local crisis.

Is health communications influencing vaccine uptake?

Maeve Berry, Lecturer in Strategic Communication, Health and Web Communication

The impending influenza season also brings a number of challenges, including vaccination uptake, hygiene adherence and continued social distancing measures.

As part of a collaborative project with the University of Notre Dame, we are currently investigating the effectiveness of different health communications strategies aimed at increasing influenza vaccination uptake among student healthcare workers across UNDA and Murdoch University. These had to be modified this year to reach stakeholders in their altered environment off-campus and break through COVID-19 messages in the online space.

However, the research project is becoming all the more pertinent given the COVID-19 pandemic; knowing that the health system will be stressed significantly by both a COVID-19 outbreak and the expected spike in influenza during winter.

We are hypothesising that this pandemic will have a positive influence on the uptake of the annual influenza vaccination amongst student healthcare workers and have adapted our evaluation methods this year to consider the influence of the COVID-19 pandemic amongst participants.

This article was written by Renae Desai FPRIA, lecturer in Strategic Communication, Health and Web Communication at Murdoch University and Dr Catherine Archer FPRIA, lecturer and researcher in Strategic Communication, Health and Social Media Communication at Murdoch University – with input from Maeve Berry, lecturer in Strategic Communication, Health and Web Communication on a current Health Communication research project.
Posted on:

22 May 2020


General, Research

Share this article:

Show your support

Clap to show your support for the article