By Kristine Goodwin
As COVID-19 spreads across the world and throughout the United States, so too does misinformation, creating what data and health scientists at the World Health Organization (WHO) deem an “infodemic.”
It’s what the WHO says happens when we have an “over-abundance of information—some accurate and some not—that makes it hard for people to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance when they need it.”
So rampant is misinformation that the WHO began tracking and dispelling myths on its myth-busters webpage and offering shareable graphics that communicate science clearly for the public. “It’s incredible how much misinformation and rumor is out there,” Kit Beyer, director of communications for Wisconsin Assembly Speaker and NCSL President Robin Vos said in last week’s edition of NCSL’s “Our American States" podcast.
By early March, as the virus was starting to take hold in the U.S., Beyer said “we focused on sharing reliable resources with constituents … because we didn’t know anything about what we were about to face.”
In an era when so many have what amounts to a Google degree in COVID-19, state and local policymakers are showing how data and research evidence offer both an antidote to misinformation and a path forward. To cut through the clutter of information, policymakers can consider asking the following questions to test the merits of evidence and discern how to use it.
How are you defining evidence?
Policymaking through an infodemic merits a healthy dose of skepticism. When you hear claims about what “the evidence shows,” ask how it’s being defined. Does it reflect an expert’s professional judgment, an anecdotal study, or a study with a control group? While professional opinion or anecdotal observations have value, we can have more confidence in an intervention’s success the more rigorously it has been tested.
Some states have defined what constitutes evidence in legislation or through definitions established by state agencies. Though they vary, states prioritize high-quality, causal evidence that shows whether a policy will produce a specific, targeted outcome.
What’s your source?
Federal sources such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and coronavirus.gov, a partnership of CDC, the White House and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), as well as state and territorial health agencies, offer reliable and science-based information and guidance. National organizations with a mission of delivering unbiased and bipartisan information like ours and others that focus on state health officials and governors are tracking and posting federal and state actions by the day.
With so many news and information outlets that also deliver our information, it’s not always easy to judge the quality and credibility of a source. Knowing that a study has been published in a peer-reviewed journal, such as The New England Journal of Medicine, tells you it was analyzed and vetted by independent experts. Not every study that gets reported on in today’s 24-hour news cycle has gone through such a process.
How strong is the evidence?
The field of evidence-based policymaking offers tools—such as evidence hierarchies and online research clearinghouses—that can help you evaluate the strength of evidence. They prioritize evidence on a scale based on the rigor of its methods, from anecdote and opinion to causal evidence, which tells us whether an intervention can be expected to produce its intended outcomes.
Clinical trials are health care’s “gold standard” for proving whether a treatment works, according to the National Institutes of Health. By proving that a treatment can cause a specific result, the results are stronger than a range of other types of evidence (see right).
The Food and Drug Administration has not approved any therapeutics to treat people with COVID-19, but some are under investigation and will be tested through clinical trials. In the meantime, dig deeper into claims that might be used to inform public policy responses. To those claiming that a medication or therapy can prevent or treat the novel coronavirus, ask how we can be sure. Was there a clinical trial? Has the study been replicated?
How can I communicate reliable information for the best possible results?
While there may not be a playbook for responding to and communicating through a crisis of this magnitude, policymakers can consult and borrow from a growing-by-the-day public repository of communication best practices and tools.
Draw from other states’ communication strategies and publicly available data visualization tools to share guidance with colleagues and constituents. NCSL’s Legislative Staff Services program summarized states’ communications responses and the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials has developed a crisis communication guide that uses “message maps” to help organize complex scientific information into easily-understood messages.
The CDC’s infographics share the facts about COVID-19 and highlight effective crisis communication strategies. Among them, the CDC cautions to fact-check with subject-matter experts: “One incorrect message can cause harmful behaviors and may result in people losing trust in future messages.”
Kristine Goodwin is a program director in NCSL's Employment, Labor & Retirement Program.