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COVID communications: what do we know? Second in a series of rolling reports

As we mark the winter solstice with our annual #CroakeyREAD Twitter festival, we summarise the discussions below from contributors to a timely new book, Communicating COVID-19: Interdisciplinary Perspectives.

We report on research into how the media, conspiracy theorists and celebrities spread misinformation, hear about “narrative public health”, and investigate how people with disability have responded to governments’ neglect of their COVID communications needs.


Coronavirus conspiracy theories

Ed Hurcombe, QUT, Brisbane

I’d like to share some research that me and my colleagues have done on how bogus COVID-conspiracies spread on social media. This research features in the upcoming #CommunicatingCOVID collection.

As Australia’s (troubled) vaccine rollout gets underway, misinformation about the effectiveness and safety of COVID vaccines, and the conspiracies about the motives of the health authorities, continues to be a problem.

In our chapter, we performed a timeline analysis of how a COVID-19 conspiracy theory – that 5G caused or was worsening COVID – gained attention on Facebook and in the news during early 2020. We observed lessons for journalists who want to reduce the spread of COVID misinformation.

Our key observations were:

1) That the initial impact of conspiracy sites can be limited. These sites were the first to falsely link 5G to COVID-19, but their claims did not spread beyond small, fringe Facebook groups.

Instead, it was only in mid-March, when celebrities started sharing the conspiracy on their big social media accounts, that we saw the conspiracy gain traction.

Which leads us to our 2) key observation: that celebrities (and indeed, other high-profile accounts) can be superspreaders of misinformation. During early 2020, these celebrities transported 5G conspiracies from fringe spaces to mainstream audiences.

And this is where news coverage comes in. After celebrities posted those bogus claims, the 5G-covid ‘story’ was greatly amplified by tabloid outlets.

Therefore 3): celebrity reporting is journalism’s weakspot for misinformation, when celebrity antics are treated as inherently newsworthy.

All this tells us that misinformation is not just a social media problem, or the sole fault of fringe accounts. Instead, celebrities and mainstream news can play major roles in spreading false – even harmful – claims.

Link to journal article is here.

So how do else can we avoid amplifying conspiracies and other misinformation? And how can we address misinformation, without letting it dominate public discussion around COVID-19?

Read the article here.

 


Pandemic narratives

Mark Davis, Monash University, @DrMarkDMDavis1, @AMRFutures

I acknowledge the Boon Wurrung and Wurundjeri people of the Kulin Nation, Traditional Custodians of the land from I connect with you, and pay my respects to their Elders past and present

I am convenor of Community Action & Policy group for Monash Centre to Impact Antimicrobial Resistance. I teach sociology with a focus on immunity and infection socio-cultures. Thanks for inviting me to contribute to #CommunicatingCOVID #CroakeyREAD.

I research social responses to pandemics, COVID-19, swine flu, superbugs, HIV with focus on personal experience narratives + media narratives + public health communication.

I want to acknowledge that despite success, there is much suffering and loss due to COVID-19 worldwide. The pandemic is not over and how it ends is up to us.

Also I acknowledge that COVID-19 has had impact on the economy here in Victoria and especially those of us in the precariat and those who have lost their source of income due to the economic rationalisation that the pandemic has enabled.

Which brings me to Communicating COVID-19 editors @DrMoniqueLewis @K_Holland18 @ElizaGovender – hugely important collection of scholarship.

Communicating COVID brings sophisticated social and media analysis to COVID-19 with case studies from South Africa, India, Italy, Israel and the global North. Provides intellectual richness to the field – an important antidote to reflex social science on COVID-19.

Communicating COVID shows pandemic narratives key for engaging publics. We could say that pandemic crises convene publics: see Defoe’s A Journal of the plague year; Marc Honigsbaum’s The pandemic century #CommunicatingCOVID #CroakeyREAD

Pandemic narrative is a familiar genre constantly reworked and played with. Priscilla Wald’s book Contagious helps us see that and asks us to investigate, mitigate and arrest social injustice tied to our pandemic story-telling habits.

Narratives employed explicitly and implicitly in pandemic comms and are thought to be vital for vaccine communications, highly relevant for us in 2021.

These uses of narrative draw on assumptions of narrative persuasion, immersion, moral education through demonstration of cause and effect, hailing through and of emotions. Tends to rely on psychologised, ‘hypodermic’ communications model.

But narratives can also pertain to ethical reflection on life and imagining our futures. Stories made, shared and retold create discursive space for creating social worlds, experimenting with identities and performing meaningful life.

We have narrative ethics and narrative medicine. Can we have narrative public health? Can narrative public health bring to pandemic life means for reflection and collectivisation that are vital for existence?

COVID-19 confirmed and transformed what we know plus what is familiar and particular. Pandemics echo each other but are also biosocially specific. COVID-19 no exception.

COVID-19 is distinctively a post-modelling pandemic. In Australia, we were asked to flatten the curve. Epidemiology has become the object of collective agency, folding together of the pandemic narrative arc, numbers and news media.

COVID-19 has been fused with ideology. What happened to pandemic preparedness used for swine flu in 2009, which was based on SARS in 2003? Closing the borders and meandering vaccination programme – who is served by this approach to COVID-19?

Let’s share our stories. How are your neighbours doing? How are other communities travelling? How can we celebrate the gift (for self and not-self) of vaccination? When the time comes, how can we memorialise suffering and loss? Thanks