The Ebola outbreak in West Africa has remained a headline story over the past few months as international health agencies and effected countries battle to contain the disease. As of Monday 18 August, it had claimed more than 1,200 lives. Communicating information about how Ebola is spread is key to curtailing the outbreak. You would think that having more communication channels available than ever before would make this task easier. But does being better connected mean the spread of misinformation is more rapid? And how can we, as communicators, tackle misinformation being spread about our own messages?
Misinformation about Ebola appears to be spreading faster than the disease. There are still pockets of people that do not believe the disease is real, which was tragically illustrated this week when a health centre in Liberia was attacked by an armed mob. On the ground, charities and local governments are going to great lengths to dispel these myths by educating people door-to-door, and even working with rap artists to produce songs about the disease to broadcast on local radio stations. But the wider issue of misinformation goes beyond the Ebola outbreak; it is now considered so serious that the rapid spread of misinformation online has been identified by the World Economic Forum as one of the ‘Top 10 trends of 2014’.
As communicators, what can we do to limit the spread of misinformation? Identifying gatekeepers is a good first step. Gatekeepers are people whom others look to as credible sources of information, such as community leaders, journalists and bloggers. Getting the facts of your story to these people before they start telling their own version of it is crucial. Be consistent with the information you’re giving out. You can be creative without letting ambiguity creep in. Sourcing experts and giving them a voice is another helpful tool. Misinformation about the MMR vaccine led to the birth of the Science Media Centre, which now provides the public with access to experts and evidence to ensure fact rises above fiction.
Finally, as the Scouts say, be prepared. Plan for all potential questions to prevent the emergence of information vacuums that can be filled by speculation and Chinese whispers. This is easier said than done in an age where messages appear and disappear in seconds on social media newsfeeds, and news channels are constantly vying to be the first to break a news story. But you should always be the first port-of-call. When that fails, don’t be afraid to pull people up when they get it wrong. Citizen journalists may be less obliged to make corrections, but all credible news outlets should adhere to strict editorial guidelines. If you believe they’ve breached these guidelines, tell them. And see it as an opportunity to identify new gatekeepers, ensuring that the right messages get to the right people in the future.