When COVID-19 first emerged in December 2019, scientists and medical professionals knew frighteningly little about it. The race to understand this novel coronavirus – how it spread, symptoms, treatments, prevention – became a global undertaking unlike any other. But as more cases were reported and the virus began appearing in countries around the world, the line between speculation (it was spreading through frozen food exports) and facts (it was actually spreading by droplet and aerosol) grew blurry.
That was just the beginning of the COVID-19 “infodemic,” a term the World Health Organization (WHO) uses to describe the overload of information – both right and wrong – that makes it hard for people to find reliable sources about the pandemic when they need it. They’ve been fighting a running battle against the many myths around COVID-19 ever since.
The good news is that the WHO’s communications team has been able to spot a lot of this misinformation as it’s come up thanks to the technology it employs to track coronavirus-related social media engagement. Spike, a real-time media monitoring tool from NewsWhip that tracks likes, shares and other engagement metrics from several social sites, including Facebook, Twitter and Reddit, has played a vital part in their efforts.
The WHO isn’t the only organization using real-time media monitoring to get in front of an evolving scenario – COVID-19-related or otherwise. Plenty of brands use this tool to see what’s being said about them, both negative and positive, and predict where the conversation could go. If you know what people are talking about then you can quickly create a PR response, either to keep the narrative under control or to make the most of a positive story that’s arisen organically.
Advice gone rogue
More organizations are also using real-time tools to monitor misinformation, which can spread like wildfire on social media. This has been an acute problem over the past two years, with the Kaiser Family Foundation finding that 78% of the U.S. public either believes or is unsure about at least one false pandemic-related statement.
One piece of misinformation that caught the WHO’s attention early on was the idea that mouthwash can prevent the SARS-CoV-2 virus. The thinking came from studies done during the previous SARS epidemic, though the data wasn’t accurate for this novel coronavirus. Several European and Asian media outlets wrote stories saying gargling with mouthwash could prevent people from contracting COVID-19 – articles that were then promoted on Facebook.
Once the WHO became aware of the issue, they started tracking it. With real-time media monitoring, they could observe just how widely the public was sharing and engaging with this narrative – one that was patently false – and predict how it would likely grow. That was when they realized that it had the potential to turn into a widespread misinformation event.
Generating real-time data
Typically, organizations have tools that look at social posts or news mentions that are hours or even days old. While that type of monitoring serves a purpose, an organization or brand that’s trying to get in front of misinformation needs a more immediate way to identify an issue.
By looking at stories, news mentions and social media posts, and measuring their engagement, real-time monitoring can give an organization the hard data it needs to mount an effective and appropriate response. With rich analytics, an organization can, in a near instant, perceive a situation, predict its direction and persuade the powers that be to take action.
Fortunately for the WHO, it had enough social media data from Spike to persuade colleagues that the false mouthwash story was getting out of control. It also used that information to convince journalists to produce fact-checking articles warning that mouthwash was not as effective a prophylactic as many people were led to believe.
At the same time, the WHO’s Facebook following increased by 150,000 likes, as people started following the organization for more pandemic-related news. To combat the spread of the story, it produced its own Facebook post debunking the story, which has since been shared nearly 1,000 times.
The pandemic may be slowly fading, but misinformation will continue challenging every industry and company. Communications professionals need the capabilities and tools to spot these situations as they emerge – and fight misconceptions with facts.