The UAA group combating disinformation with empathy Por pedro graterol
Photo: Bill Roth / Anchorage Daily News.
Disinformation and misinformation related to COVID-19 has impacted public health efforts to mitigate the disease since the beginning of the pandemic. However, there’s a group in the University of Alaska powered by volunteers that jump into the frontlines to confront misinformation with empathy, education and engagement: the Alaska Public Health Information Response Team (APHIRT) led by Assistant Professor of Public Health, Dr. Jennifer Meyer. Read our conversation with her about the work being done by the team.
How were the origins of the APHIRT? We began officially in the Fall of 2020, during the first year of the pandemic, and now respond daily to alerts from a dozen or so popular public-facing Facebook pages: ADN, DHSS, Alaska News Source etc.
- The team is powered by volunteers. How was the process of recruiting them? Yes, volunteers. Many have some expertise in health, health care, public health, epidemiology, biology, etc. Our goal is to provide accurate science-based information on which readers can make informed decisions. Recruitment is ongoing. Some are students but most are professionals responding in their free time.
- What has been the most surprising insight while working with the group? We have undergraduate and graduate students assisting in a variety of ways on this project. Some work as monitors, flagging misinformation for a response, others work to develop an application that can help us understand the source and spread of misinformation much like you would for an infectious disease. By helping people understand scientific information, and how to spot anti-science tactics we can help them become less vulnerable to the standard fear-based tactics of groups such as the anti-vaccine industry.
- Could you explain what your approach is to responding to misinformation? Volunteers are trained to respond with empathy, education, and engagement. The group has pioneered this Triple E approach. We also respond daily which makes us somewhat unique although the field of infodemiology is changing and growing rapidly.
- How does the team address trolls and hostility online? How do you decide which arguments to engage with or not? We try to focus on misinformation that is likely to “go viral;” it’s emotional, typically fear-based, not simply an opinion, and may have significant reach in terms of viewers. We aren’t here to argue, our goal is more information, not less. We remember to respond to the content of the misinformation. Point out why it’s wrong and where to learn more if they choose.
- What comes next for the group after the pandemic? We see the tactics of anti-science influencing public policies in all kinds of dangerous ways which ultimately affect population health outcomes. Students and professionals in science-based fields need to develop the competencies for responding to and managing misinformation. Choosing to ignore it is no longer an option. Misinformation is far too dangerous. For example, communities voting out fluoridated water based on false claims about fluoride, or parents refusing vaccines for their kids because of false claims about vaccines. Schools throughout Alaska are failing to enact vaccine requirements leading to outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases like SARS-CoV-2.
Slowing or stopping action on climate change, or failing to enact gun safety measures. The same thing happened with COVID-19 mitigation measures and we are in the middle of another surge in the US. With our efforts, we combine the skills of strategic communication, public health, and computer science to fight health misinformation. Hopefully, the process we have developed could be transferable to other states and settings. We are currently trying to understand if our efforts have any impact. This is a difficult question to study but we are up for the challenge.