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Breaking through mis-disinformation in emergency risk communication


The Emergency Preparedness Research Evaluation and Practice (EPREP) Program at the Harvard T H Chan School of Public Health is made up of a team of public health experts focused on public health emergencies systems improvement, especially risk communication.

The COVID-19 pandemic has fueled an infodemic on an unprecedented scale. The public’s attention can shift from medical/government advice towards alternative explanations which can have negative long-term effects impacting on the ways in which people process and act upon information. It is a challenge that can undermine trust in public health interventions beyond COVID-19 such as in well-established vaccines, in science and in official institutions.  

To effectively combat this infodemic, agencies engaged in risk communication efforts, need to develop the capability to use available resources – including social media and population data – to develop the best communication strategy possible and adapt the strategy based on the needs of the population they serve and complexity of the emergency they are facing.

Emergency risk communication (ERC) is the dynamic, interactive process of sharing information strategically and effectively about issues of high concern, to help people make informed decisions and understand risks.

ERC is critical but incredibly challenging especially as scientific information evolves and mis-disinformation fills the void when scientific uncertainty is common.

Historically, infodemic management has not been an identified component of governmental ERC. The explicit need to respond to the infodemic and address mis-disinformation (and the use of that terminology) has only come to the forefront of most government communicators over the last couple of years. For example, here in the United States, the CDC published a revised set of national standards for Public Health Emergency Preparedness and Response Capabilities in 2018 with specific mention of the significant gains in the maturity and experience of these programs since 2011. Around the same time in 2017, the EPREP team articulated a conceptual framework to support contemporary evaluation activities in ERC.

The EPREP team has been working to identify resources available to understand and manage infodemics, as well as capabilities needed by agencies to effectively communicate to the public and address mis-disinformation. Currently under review with ECDC and Eurosurveillance, the team has created a checklist of activities that risk communicators can draw on when considering their infodemic management response.

Further, as part of an ongoing effort to support the connection between research resources and practitioners, the team conducted a training workshop on this topic at the National Association of City and County Health Officials (NACCHO) Preparedness Summit in Atlanta, GA that took place earlier this month. Over fifty public health officials attended the session, which was well received and enabled participants to leave with specific skills to identify misinformation, and a list of actions to take back to their local health departments. The team has another training workshop planned at the Global Health Security (GHS) Conference in Singapore in late June 2022.

Authors: Dr Rachael Piltch-Loeb with Dr Elena Savoia, EPREP Harvard

Related resources:

Transparency, communication and trust: The role of public communication in responding to the wave of disinformation about the new Coronavirus, OECD (Updated 3 July 2020)

Controlling misinformation while communicating risk (12 mins segment) (from 18 mins 10 seconds) featured in Nature’s Podcast ‘Coronapod: Troubling news’ (17 April 2020)



EU strategy: Media Literacy for Democracy

20 January, 2023
Online (Free tickets)
Taking place as part of the EU strategy for media literacy, Marco Delmastro, a social scientist supporting IRIS Academic’s infodemic research pillar, will join European panellists to discuss the phenomena of mis- and disinformation and the threat they pose to European democracy and well-being.