Tina D Purnat

Public health

Health misinformation

Infodemic management

Digital and health policy

Health information and informatics

Tina D Purnat
Tina D Purnat
Tina D Purnat
Tina D Purnat
Tina D Purnat
Tina D Purnat
Tina D Purnat

Public health

Health misinformation

Infodemic management

Digital and health policy

Health information and informatics

Blog Post

Why messages alone won’t save us from circulating misinformation

I’m often finding myself in situations where I need to explain why messages, even perfectly framed ones, will not alone support behavior change or address vulnerability from misinformation.

Messages are a fundamental part of communication, but they alone cannot address misinformation.

What it comes down to is narratives and gistnot only messages.

Message, gist and narrative

Message, gist, and narrative refer to how different aspects of communication combine to convey meaning and understanding.

  • A message is the information or content that is being communicated, it can be expressed in various forms such as text, speech, images, videos, emojis, memes, etc.
  • The gist of a message refers to the underlying meaning or essence of the message. It captures the central idea or theme that the message is trying to convey, despite the presence of other details or distractions.
  • A narrative is a way of organizing and presenting information, it tells a story or describes events in a particular order. A narrative takes the message and the gist, and places them into a structured form, adding context, and sequencing events to create a more complete understanding of what is being communicated.

The message is the raw information, the gist is the essence of the message, and the narrative is the structured presentation of the message and gist that adds context and meaning.

Here’s an example

Let’s say that there’s an outbreak of a new disease, where misinformation is spreading about its origins and the best ways to treat it.

  • Message: “The disease is caused by a new strain of bacteria that was created in a lab.”
  • Gist: The cause of the disease is a new strain of bacteria that was created through human intervention, rather than natural causes.
  • Narrative: The disease was created intentionally in a lab and released as a bioweapon, and the government is hiding the truth about its origins to avoid panic.

In this example, the message is a specific claim about the cause of the disease, and the gist is the underlying assumption that the disease was created through human intervention. The narrative is a broader storyline that ties together multiple claims and assumptions to create a coherent and compelling story about the disease.

In this case, the message, gist, and narrative are all examples of misinformation. The scientific community has determined that the disease is not caused by a new strain of bacteria created in a lab, but by a naturally occurring virus. The idea that the disease was created as a bioweapon is not supported by any credible evidence, and is likely to spread fear and mistrust among the public.

You can imagine that debunking a false claim will not be effective on its own, if other strategies do not address the underlying gist that there was an intention behind the creation of a pathogen. In addition, prebunking through a variety of approaches would be needed to prevent such narratives from crossing to other narratives, conspiracy theories or even being hijacked by disinformation that leverages the underlying mistrust in science and government.

Analyzing gist is important to understand the narrative and how to debunk or prebunk

Understanding the gist of a message is important in debunking because it helps to identify the core message and underlying assumptions that drive a particular narrative. By focusing on the gist of a message, you can more effectively evaluate the credibility of the information being presented and determine whether it is accurate or not.

For example, when faced with a misleading or false claim, you might look at the context in which the claim is made, including the source, the timing, and the audience being targeted. By analyzing the gist of the message, you can assess the motivations behind the claim, and whether it is driven by a desire to inform or to deceive.

Additionally, understanding the gist of a message can help to identify common themes or patterns in the spread of misinformation, which can be useful in developing strategies to counter it. For example, if you observe that a particular type of false claim is often spread through a particular channel or source, you can target your efforts to counteract that channel or source, rather than trying to address each individual instance of misinformation.

Basically, understanding the gist of a message is critical in debunking misinformation because it helps you to identify the underlying motivations and assumptions that drive the spread of false information, and to develop effective strategies for countering it.

Skillful fact-checkers apply this knowledge when publishing debunks. Debunks effectively convey corrective information when they use public health gist in the headline. Hall Jamieson (2021) describes the two examples of headlines below – the one on the left communicates the bottom line (the gist) that COVID-19 vaccines are safe while the headline on the right reinforces the false claim by repeating it.

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From the lecture by Elisabeth Wilhelm and I on addressing health misinformation, WHO/GAVI/UNICEF/US CDC comprehensive training on promoting vaccine demand

An infodemic manager needs to understand and analyze narratives, not individual messages

Understanding narratives is important in countering misinformation because narratives provide a framework for organizing information and shaping people’s perceptions and beliefs. Misinformation often relies on a compelling narrative to spread, as people are more likely to remember and believe information that is presented in a narrative form.

The unit of analysis for an infodemic manager is a narrative, not individual pieces of content or misinformation.

By understanding the narrative behind a piece of misinformation, you can more effectively counter its spread. You can address the key elements of the narrative, such as its assumptions, arguments, and motivations, and present evidence that contradicts or rebuts its claims. This can help to disrupt the spread of misinformation by making it more difficult for people to remember or believe the false information.

Additionally, understanding the narrative behind misinformation can also help you to identify the sources of the information, and the channels through which it is being spread. This can be useful in developing targeted strategies to counteract the spread of misinformation, such as working with trusted sources (in the digital environment, these can be people, communities or institutions!) to provide accurate information, or using social media algorithms to limit the reach of false information.

Understanding narratives is critical in countering misinformation because narratives provide a framework for organizing and spreading false information and because they shape people’s beliefs and perceptions. By understanding the narratives behind misinformation, you can more effectively disrupt its spread, and work to promote accurate information and credible sources.

Side note: While narratives are essential in understanding the dynamics within an information environment, this doesn’t mean that narrative-based techniques are also a strategy to counter harmful narratives. While storytelling is important in communicating complex scientific and other concepts and ideas, it hasn’t been proven to be any more effective than other approaches to debunking (see Ecker at al, 2020). If you’re interested specifically in correction and debunking strategies, this review by Ecker et al (2022) is a great overview.

The bottom line – understanding of narratives and message gist is key to develop infodemic management strategies

Currently, social listening tools do not support tracking and characterizing of narratives in analysis datasets. Because marketing doesn’t require sophisticated narrative countering to achieve business objectives, analytical tools that have been developed for the industry are not meeting our needs in social listening for health or other socially relevant topics.

If we wanted to scale response to misinformation, we would need to reduce the amount of money poured into message-based analytics and strategies and invest into more nuanced strategies that rely on the evidence we glean from open source, transparent tools that help identify and track narratives over time (including their spread across online communities, geographies, linguistic evolution and crossovers to other topics). Currently, the tools that are doing this type of analysis are the brains of analysts that are doing the integrated analysis and interpretation of insights.

So every infodemic management strategy, no matter on what topic, should include (among other things):

  • Establish capacity to generate and use evidence for your decision-making. Establish a routine social listening and infodemic management function that provides routine rapid insights on circulating concerns, questions, information voids, and circulating narratives, mis- and disinformation in relation to the health topic of focus and crossovers with other health topics or acute health events
  • Communications strategies should build on undertanding message gist, circulating narratives, and the risk they pose. Train staff in translating insights into recommendations that understand the drivers behind circulating narratives and misinformation, using a risk assessment matrix that assesses the narratives for level of threat to public health or communities of concern
  • Provide useful contextual information and strategies to frontline health workers. Analyze most common questions, narratives and misinformation tropes within the health topic in question and develop and maintain a misinformation primer for health workers, health promotion officers and similar profiles on most common questions, concerns and misinformation and provide clear, simple answers and guidance on how to rebut misinformation effectively with patients
  • If people are looking for credible, accurate information, it should be digitally available for search engines, fact-checkers, partners, and health workers to find it. Ensure that core topical content including on transmission, infection prevention, and on relevant vaccines or treatments is widely available online in a variety of formats and languages, including a myth busters page where common misinformation can be rebutted and linked to by fact checkers and other partners

I wrote this LinkedIn blog in the summer of 2023, to explain that focusing on message formulation and testing is insufficient to move the needle on circulating misinformation or mitigate its influence on people’s perceptionsFollow me on LinkedIn. if you’d like to read more of my commentaries.