The PR industry’s greatest challenge could be to fight the coronavirus infodemic

COVID-19 has brought sudden and extreme change to our lives.

This is an opportunity for the industry to demonstrate how tech and social media can combat the coronavirus 'infodemic', argues Drew Benvie
This is an opportunity for the industry to demonstrate how tech and social media can combat the coronavirus 'infodemic', argues Drew Benvie

Technologies like social media and videoconferencing apps are playing a vital role in bringing us closer while we’re apart, spreading critical information globally, and rallying support for important causes in healthcare and in society as a whole.

But technology is facilitating the spread of some major problems too, and it is us, the communications industry leaders and the most aware among society of where mainstream stories originate, who have the power to lead the charge in fixing it.

Like the coronavirus itself, disinformation is spreading fast, such as the misconception that 5G is causing COVID-19, or racist statements blaming ethnic groups.

The spread of these stories hinders our efforts to protect one another.

So I’ve been heartened that our watchdogs, politicians and healthcare organisations have joined the fight on fake, and at speed.

MP Damian Collins has set up Infotagion, a fact-checking service to fight misinformation about the pandemic, calling for the posting of fake news on social media to be made an offence.

Ofcom has published a report stating that 46 per cent of internet-using adults in the UK have seen misleading information about COVID-19 during the UK’s lockdown, a figure that rose to 58 per cent for 18- to 24-year-olds.

And the World Health Organization (WHO), which has announced that we are now in a social media ‘infodemic’ – a pandemic of disinformation and fake news – has launched ‘EPI-WIN: the WHO information network for epidemics’, and is working directly with all the major social networks to ensure users have access to correct and authoritative information.

But as billions across the world get used to life on lockdown, the risk misinformation poses to public health has never been greater, which is why we need to play a vital role right now in slowing the spread of COVID-19.

I think that social media can be one of the most powerful forces for good in society today.

When we’re in isolation, it brings us together. It gives us access to information we’ve never had before, especially in times like this during a pandemic.

We’ve never had so much power online. And we must use this power for good.

One thing communications professionals can do more of at this time is help their audiences to understand what’s real and what’s fake.

This could be through sharing online safety messages in their own brand content, reporting more fake news and social-media trolls themselves, or simply by running education programmes through internal communications initiatives to keep employees safe online.

This is an opportunity for us all to become more tech-literate, too.

As we spend less time in meetings and travelling for our work, we should be more curious about how information is spreading online, especially among the younger generations.

Through understanding how information spreads, where people are spending their time and what formats people share; we can evolve our thinking too.

I hope that what has pushed us apart can, through technology, bring us closer together, and that we will return – once this is all over – more aware of social media’s power for good, and how we can all make it a safer place for society.

Drew Benvie is founder and chief executive of Battenhall

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