Over the past couple of years, we’ve probably all had more than a few pandemic discussions — and a few arguments too. We’ve heard it numerous times, this isn’t just a pandemic, it’s also an infodemic. Misinformation ran amok from the very first stages of the pandemic, and many people saw their friends or family “drink the kool-aid” and fall for the misinformation.
So what should you do in this situation?
For many people, this poses a thorny dilemma: do you challenge your peers’ misinformation and risk a confrontation and alienating them, or do you let them believe something that is simply wrong?
Andrew Chadwick, Cristian Vaccari, and Natalie-Anne Hall, three researchers at Loughborough University, wanted to explore that situation. They focused on personal messaging on Whatsapp, a social messaging platform with over 2 billion users.
Communicating on Whatsapp is not the same as communicating face to face, and it’s also different from communicating on a “public wall”, like on Facebook, for instance. Social messaging communication has developed its own norms and communication style, and at least on these platforms, researchers say, you’re probably better off challenging misleading pandemic messages.
“Discussion of vaccines mostly happens in small messaging groups among family, friends, and work colleagues – where people know each other well and tend to trust each other”, say the researchers. “Paradoxically, this can increase the likelihood that misinformation goes unchallenged. This is because, on personal messaging, people have a norm of conflict avoidance. Importantly, for some people conflict avoidance is seen as easier to perform on personal messaging than it is during in-person communication.”
The study draws from three sources of information. First, they carried out in-depth interviews with 102 people from the UK. In addition, they also analyzed personal messaging content that some participants voluntarily uploaded online using a special app. Lastly, nationally representative panel surveys designed on results from the first two strands were also designed.
The researchers found that conflict avoidance comes at a cost. When you don’t want to challenge these opinions due to a fear of triggering conflict, you’re partly backing up the misinformation.
“When people encounter vaccine misinformation in larger personal messaging groups, for example among school parents or work colleagues, they fear that if they try to correct it they will be seen as undermining group cohesion by provoking conflict and they worry about their command of facts about the safety of Covid vaccines. People perceive these risks to be greater when there is a more “public” or “semi-public” context of a larger messaging group to consider,” the researchers note.
“But conflict avoidance casts a long shadow. Scaling and gauging may help build solidarity among those positive about vaccination, but these practices also evade opportunities to address misinformation in the contexts where it appears.”
“These signals of tacit acceptance in a family, friend or school group can enhance the legitimacy of misinformation and contribute to its further spread.”
However, challenging vaccine disinformation (which is what researchers specifically looked up) can be effective and cause some people to drop dialogue completely. Researchers also suggest some approaches to tackling misinformation that reduce these risks.
For starters, person-focused, not content-focused anti-misinformation seems to work best. Also, those looking to challenge misinformation should balance this against the risk of maintaining healthy relationships with their family and friends, and not try to antagonize people, but rather be empathetic towards them. Lastly, interventions can range from the public (in the group chat) to one on one, and results may vary.
“If encouraged in suitable ways by public health communicators, communication-based on these bonds of interpersonal trust could play new and creative roles in mitigating the spread of online vaccine misinformation more broadly,” the researchers conclude.
The team also acknowledges significant limitations. Interpersonal communication is complex and hard to sum up in models, but there is value in addressing these messaging environments.
Lastly, it’s important to mention that these group communication channels, unlike public ones, are encrypted, which means they can be neither moderated nor approached algorithmically. Basically, it’s entirely up to ourselves and the people we talk to to ensure that discussions don’t spread misinformation. Judging by how problematic misinformation has proven to be, this could matter a lot not just in the ongoing pandemic, but also in other challenges we’ll undoubtedly encounter in the future.