Maryn McKenna on Health Communication and Disinformation

Michaela Jarvis

Informing the public about COVID-19 in an atmosphere in which false information spread faster on social media than the coronavirus itself posed an enormous — and unprecedented — challenge, said journalist Maryn McKenna in an Oct. 24 AAAS Kavli Science Journalism lecture, and although the pandemic has significantly retreated, the communication emergency has not.

Referring to the situation as a narrative arc with a huge dip caused by “encountering a problem that knocks you off course,” McKenna said she thinks journalism is struggling to recover.

“As a profession, as news media practitioners, I don’t think we’ve quite figured out how to climb our way back up,” she said.

McKenna, an award-winning reporter and author, specializes in public health and is a Senior Fellow at Emory University’s Center for the Study of Human Health, where she teaches science writing and storytelling. A senior writer at WIRED, she won a 2019 AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Gold Award for “The Plague Years: How the rise of right-wing nationalism is jeopardizing the world’s health,” which was published by The New Republic.

McKenna lectures in front of a group of attendees at UNC
Jessica Simmons / UNC Hussman

McKenna spoke at the University of North Carolina (UNC) as part of the AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Award lecture series, which brings winners of AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Awards to university campuses for public lectures and workshops with journalism students. The event was also sponsored by UNC’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media and Gillings School of Global Public Health.

In her talk, McKenna referred to the COVID pandemic as “the first fully online public health emergency.” Health experts who had in the past been relied on for information — officials at government agencies, academic researchers, individuals who had devoted their careers to public health concerns — were challenged like never before. The online challengers included people “who simply disagreed,” foreign agents who sought to destabilize U.S. public health and society with disinformation, and “armchair experts in their mom’s basement,” McKenna said.

Meanwhile, as researchers and health officials worked feverishly to understand COVID and to design measures to best combat its deadly spread, that inevitably messy process played out in the public eye.

“Everyone on the Internet got to watch science and policy done in real time,” McKenna said, adding that the dire need for understanding about the new strain of coronavirus led to an explosion in the use of pre-print servers, which published research findings without the usual peer review.

As social media turbo-charged the dissemination of information related to COVID — by March 2020, 550 million tweets had referred to COVID or the coronavirus, McKenna said — and false information ran way ahead of anything accurate, with the governing algorithms of social media tending to reinforce users’ existing beliefs.

“We arrive at social media with our own predetermined beliefs about which sources of information are accurate,” McKenna said. “We engage with content and share it based on those beliefs. We work pretty hard to avoid the discomfort of experiencing cognitive dissonance when those beliefs are challenged.”

Most disturbingly, according to researchers who published their findings in the journal Science, false statements gain far greater traction when compared to accurate information — at a ratio sometimes as great as 100 to one, McKenna cited.

Some of that advantage can be attributed to the particular characteristics of social media, but more than 300 years ago, Jonathan Swift wrote about the quick spread of falsehoods, McKenna pointed out.

“If a lie be believed for an hour, it has done its work, and there is no farther occasion for it,” Swift wrote. “Falsehood flies, and truth comes limping after it.”

At the start of the COVID pandemic, President Trump had already long shown himself to be a master of social media, going back to his 100-plus posts attacking the Obama Administration’s response to Ebola, posts that attracted a huge following.

Whether Trump’s mastery was strategic or fortuitous, McKenna said, “he managed to understand how to leverage the characteristics that researchers have shown drive engagement on social media: emotion and moralistic judgment.”

At the same time, celebrities such as rapper Nicki Minaj and author and conspiracy theorist Naomi Wolf reached millions of followers with outlandish social media posts. Minaj said a cousin’s friend became impotent and had his wedding canceled after receiving the COVID vaccine. In September of this year, Wolf said she knew more than 60 women who experienced disturbances in their menstrual cycles after sitting near, or sleeping in hotel beds previously occupied by, vaccinated women.

Unfortunately, the traditional technique of journalists providing the accurate facts and figures to serve as evidence or to debunk falsehoods is not effective, McKenna said. Debunking people’s beliefs “has definitely been shown to be unsuccessful,” she noted, and researchers have found such efforts “may actually harden people’s attitudes.”

Instead, McKenna explored other options for journalists to fight misinformation and disinformation, including prevailing on social media platforms for more curation, more caution regarding the promotion of obviously false information, and reinforced fact-checking. She also advised trying to appropriate some of the tools of successful social media engagement, such as using more visual formats, humor, and human authenticity.

“In one word, I think I’m arguing for storytelling, and that can be first-person,” she said, adding that journalists could consider amplifying techniques that reach people on a personal level. “As journalists, we understand the power of storytelling and anecdote,” McKenna said, referring to its ability to “wrap emotion and personal contact around the statistics and data that we need to deliver.”

“I think we should think about that more, which is hard because we feel naturally compelled, professionally compelled to be accurate, and to stray into techniques of storytelling feels like we are risking accuracy in favor of emotion. But I think we should confront, from the experience of COVID, that simply reciting the data” will not be successful.

Having referred to a tweet sent out very early in the COVID epidemic in which an epidemiologist named Eric Feigl-Ding started the post with “HOLY MOTHER OF GOD” and referred to the calculated potential for spread as “thermonuclear pandemic level bad,” McKenna acknowledged that the tweet was intense in tone and, it turned out, had some inaccurate statistics. She wondered out loud toward the end of her lecture, however, whether the emotional charge of the post led to its going viral.

“The fact that myself and many other health journalists and infectious disease people still remember this tweet says something about the communication style,” McKenna said. “Maybe communicating out of authentic emotion, out of shock, with an attempt to engage people’s emotions, to engage people personally is not such a mistake after all. Maybe there’s a lesson in that.”