Challenge Accepted: Communicating through a crisis
The power and pitfalls around messaging as the world navigates COVID-19.
As the novel coronavirus spread around the world, communications about the deadly virus proved problematic with a large amount of misinformation being widely reported. This resulted in some people and governments being slow to react to save tens of thousands of lives.
In February, the WHO described COVID-19 as an “infodemic” as well as a pandemic. The organisation said that in addition to the challenge of effectively communicating important health messages, COVID-19 communication was being undermined by misinformation and disinformation.
Now, UTS Distinguished Professor Jim Macnamara and Professor Maureen Taylor have been commissioned to develop a measurement and evaluation framework, as well as templates for the WHO to track traditional and social media, websites and publications based on program evaluation theory and best practice.
“The measurement and evaluation will identify which messages are getting through, and which channels are most effective, to enable adjustment and fine tuning of campaigns,” says Professor Taylor.
Distinguished Professor Macnamara says, “This prestigious contract from the WHO demonstrates the importance and value of external engagement with industry, government, and non-profit organisations.”
While Distinguished Professor Macnamara and Professor Taylor are co-leads on this research project, they are being supported by recent UTS Ph.D graduate, Dr Marie Palmer, who is focussed on social media and web analytics.
For the Australian government, one of its top health messages was clear – download the COVIDSafe app.
“We heard the Prime Minister say repeatedly that in order to ease restrictions, people needed to download the app. And people were right to question the privacy and security of it,” says Dr Sacha Molitorisz, a Postdoctoral Research Fellow for the UTS Centre for Media Transition, and a digital privacy expert.
Dr Molitorisz has criticised the government’s handling of privacy protections in recent years, including in his new book, Net Privacy, however when he researched the COVIDSafe app, he determined it was a good example of striking the right balance by protecting both public health and personal privacy.
“This is a situation where the health threat is significant and privacy concerns have generally been well-managed.”
However, Dr Molitorisz says there are aspects of the app that could have been handled better, including with the specific technology adopted. For instance, the app may not work when iPhones are locked.
“But generally the government has taken privacy seriously, and that's commendable, including with various safeguards built into the accompanying legislation.
“Let's hope that marks a shift. Currently we're badly exposed in privacy terms. My hope is that the app helps against coronavirus, but also that it starts a trend that sees our digital privacy better protected, including through legal reform.”
Discussions of societal reform have also been brought to the fore during the pandemic, however not all groups have been represented.
Andrew Jakubowicz, an Emeritus Professor of Sociology, says ethnic communities in particular have been disadvantaged as governments and health officials failed to identify and address how COVID-19 was impacting them.
Emeritus Professor Jakubowicz says he used every element of his research network to determine why this was the case and assess the likely negative outcomes in those communities due to this omission.
“The failure to collect data on cultural background and language leaves potentially vulnerable groups without adequate information, and epidemiologist and public health officials without a realistic sense of the landscape in which they need to move.
“If sanitary social distancing and testing are the key weapons against the disease at least in the short term, then rigorous documentation of how the pandemic is affecting different groups must underpin strategies that seek to protect the vulnerable and ensure potential ‘spreaders’ can take appropriate and rational precautions.”
Emeritus Professor Jakubowicz says it’s possible that adequate data might also reveal a confronting reality.
“It could expose that ethnic communities are missing out on access to adequate testing and disease identification, indicating structural and systemic discrimination exists at the most fundamental level.”
Emeritus Professor Jakubowicz has identified the lack of any ethnic data in the Notifiable Diseases process as a major problem in the Australian system, and says it’s a curious gap for an ostensibly multicultural society.