The 2021 edition of MM+M’s annual Health Media Issue was headlined by a feature about the scourge of health misinformation. Reported and written right around the time the country’s vaccination campaign kicked into high gear, the story rested on a presumption that, for lack of a more elegant way to phrase it, we had finally gotten our act together.
The vaccines worked. The science was indisputable. The newly installed presidential administration was communicating early and often. That wasn’t a set of circumstances under which misinformation could continue to proliferate, right?
Alas, we underestimated the extent to which bad actors and the chronically underinformed could hijack a public health rollout that, in a less politically divided era, would have been a layup. We also underestimated the power of language itself: To many people, “Operation Warp Speed” connoted a process that prioritized velocity over safety.
By the middle of 2021, as the vaccination push slowed, there were numerous signs that the country was losing the battle over health misinformation. The one piece of evidence that hammered this home for me? My wife’s text chain with the other moms of fourth-grade boys.
At the start of shutdown, the six women used the thread to vent, to empathize, to forge virtual connections in the absence of so many others. Before long, the thread evolved into a resource of sorts: As information about COVID-19 became available, they shared it with one another and war-gamed the implications for our core group of families. I came to rely on it as well, given that my dad thread mostly trafficked in conversations about fantasy football and the best Eddie Van Halen riff (correct answer: “D.O.A.”).
Before too long, however, the thread descended into the misinformation bog. There were no “I’ve done my own research, and …” proclamations or sharing of links to sources of dubious epidemiological province. Instead, mostly out of exasperation over the flood of seemingly contradictory information, they started to question every morsel that came their way.
After a little while, they gave up. Last March and April, the chain teemed with “yes! Got a [unprintable adverb] vax appointment!” energy; when it came time for the adult booster rollout and the first wave of shots for the fourth-graders themselves, no longer was anyone trumpeting CVS.com scheduling hacks. The rampant misinformation had slowly transformed them into borderline indifferent consumers of health media.
In this issue, we offer an autopsy of sorts on the communication efforts to date and an Rx for the ones to follow. It’s a story we didn’t anticipate having to write again; frankly, we’re as tired of reporting on the scourge of health misinformation as you are of reading about it. Whatever encouragement we may feel on other media-related fronts — check out our report on the industry’s surprising early embrace of the metaverse — we’ll only make so much progress until we emerge from the misinformation haze.