How Do We Amplify Truth In The Face Of Overwhelming Lies?

Part 2: Overcoming vaccine hesitancy in the U.S. & the 2021 challenge to save American democracy

Vaccine misinformation is to 2021 what election disinformation and misinformation was to 2020—another existential threat to American democracy. The implications of reality divergence between America’s political herds have proven dire in recent months with both extremists storming the Capitol and Americans rejecting the Covid-19 vaccine. The U.S. needs to get its population vaccinated in order to end the pandemic, and yet despite sufficient vaccine supply and an impressive roll out by the new administration, the demand for vaccines has weakened in the face of withering misinformation and disinformation about vaccines. The challenge isn’t a vaccine safety problem, it's a communications problem, no longer a health crisis, but an information war. 

The U.S. government fights its information wars like it's the 1980s, using an outdated analog communications strategy on a 21st century social media battlefield. Current government public affairs approaches remain committed to the “one messenger” approach, where Dr. Anthony Fauci (or other government official) strides up to a podium or sits at a conference table and dispenses facts and makes recommendations for officials and the public. In the 1980s, Fauci’s science and policy prescriptions would be filtered out to Americans by a finite number of mainstream media outlets and the public would likely observe pandemic protocols and accepted medical expertise. The message and the messenger, a younger Dr. Fauci, would be evaluated and questioned by fellow scientists, policymakers, and journalists, but ultimately the facts would generally inform policy decisions, and elected officials would encourage constituents to abide by government regulations and health guidelines. 

Today, however, Dr. Fauci faces a social media information revolt where hundreds or even a million online detractors are capable of being their own printing press, radio broadcast, and television show. Instead of answering questions from informed gatekeepers, public health experts receive a barrage of baseless queries and conspiracies arising from social media personalities to include social activists, political pundits, fake cure fraudsters, celebrities with large followings, vengeful former co-workers, shady public relations cut-outs, and just about every American angry about being stuck in their house for a year during the pandemic.

The government’s old-school one messenger approach results in America’s top doctor being the single point of attack for a millions-strong misinformation, disinformation and propaganda tidal wave. Fauci and a few others in high level government policy positions, despite tirelessly seeking to get accurate scientific information out to the American public that doesn’t understand complex scientific information, are human. Fauci will make a mistake, and America’s anti-vaccine social media antagonists and political opportunists will rapidly use a single error to discredit him as a messenger in perpetuity. Anti-vaccine detractors will replay a one-off mistake more frequently on social media than the thousands of bits Dr. Fauci has executed perfectly. The anti-vax coalition will deliberately overlook, block out or drown out any correction Fauci might issue to a simple mistake or misspeak. In short, Fauci’s detractors will be fast (first), voluminous (most), will undermine public trust in his communications (trusted source) and will offer rebuttals of varying accuracy and truthfulness to completely destroy confidence in the science he’s trying to communicate.

How can the government solve its one big messenger problem? Try 1,000 micro-messengers

Dr. Fauci has done an amazing job for America, and we are lucky to have had him during the pandemic. However, whether it’s elections, pandemics, vaccines or cybersecurity, the U.S. government has to change its messaging approach, and change it quickly, by entering the social media era and letting go of outdated beltway dogma regarding public communications.  

As discussed last week, we know how social media plays to our biases (confirmation, implicit, and availability) and how manipulators distort reality by being the first seen, the most seen, and the trusted source in social media feeds while encouraging their followers to block out rebuttals. Thus, if the U.S. government and its institutions want to execute a social media campaign elevating truth beyond wide spread lies, they must overpower falsehoods by accelerating their messaging (first), amplifying their message (most), and aggressively expanding the number and type of messengers to appeal to the implicit bias of citizens manipulated by detractors with bad intentions. America needs a million messengers, not one central messenger—a network of patriotic experts and influencers to uproot an online tsunami of falsehoods. If one were to couch our current situation as an information war, this many messengers approach would be referred to as an information counter insurgency (I’m not sure I like putting this in military terms, but it can serve as a useful analogy.)

Truth and democracy moving forward requires a network of messengers that individually may not appear to have an overwhelming social media presence, but by looking like, talking like, and being part of the communities in which they are communicating can dissuade the fears of vaccine hesitant audiences and disrupt social media manipulators layering falsehoods in the minds of Americans in need of a vaccine. Thousands of messengers provide no center of gravity for manipulators to target their discrediting campaigns and levy conspiracies. These networks often exist informally in some departments, but they should now be formally reinforced and connected in trusted collectives that can receive, repeat and relay factual information on critical topics like public health, homeland security, election integrity and science. An example of how effective this local micro-messenger approach can be occurred naturally only a few months back when Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger publicly shouted down bogus election rigging and voter fraud claims last November.

More importantly, tailored messengers can be applied to vaccine hesitant audiences most in need of a shot and delivered to the demographics most in need of the message. Note, some locales and recent efforts have made strides in this regard. 

Heading forward in the immediate, for example, the most valuable social media messengers for overcoming vaccine hesitancy are likely:

  • Messenger: Women doctors who are also mothers 

    • Audience: Vaccine hesitant women worried about fertility and fearful mothers receiving anti-vaccine messaging regarding the safety of their children. Women doctor-mothers in purple states and out west in pockets of extreme vaccine hesitancy will be particularly valuable messengers in the coming months.

  • Messenger: Medical doctors, frontline workers and elected officials that have survived Covid-19 

    • A medical expert or elected official who has survived Covid-19, over the age of 65, and living in the Deep South can make great gains in overcoming vaccine hesitancy among publics. Recent interviews with Frank Luntz (podcast) featuring former New Jersey governor Chris Christie and Tennessee doctor and COVID-19 survivor Dr. Daniel Lewis demonstrates the effectiveness of formers - survivors of the ill effects of a bad phenomena – to offer the best advice to those who’ve not experienced the down sides of poorly informed decisions. 

  • Messenger: Wounded warriors from Iraq and Afghanistan that have received the vaccine 

    • Audience: U.S. military personnel. Vaccine hesitancy—or, rather, vaccine resistance—in the military has become a major cause of concern for combat readiness with up to a third or more of military units refusing the vaccine despite widespread availability. Battlefield survivors advocating for tackling the fight against Covid-19, can provide an effective messenger for undermining conspiracies and can be employed in several ways. “You’re not afraid to die in battle, but you're afraid of a vaccine?” 

The proposed messengers above offer just off-the-cuff examples for scaling truth about the efficacy and safety of Covid-19 vaccines and there are many more that could be added for specific audiences. 

Creating a network of social media messengers for informing Americans about vaccines, similar to how most political candidates conduct grass-roots social media campaigns, should not be partisan. For example, the Biden administration when announcing its vaccine rollout a couple months back, applied a 1955 political strategy of dispatching its Democrats out across the country to give scripted speeches to structured audiences—at best this effort reached the less than half of the country that already voted for President Biden and were already aggressively seeking out the vaccine. Who didn’t hear the truth about vaccines? Those watching social media videos discrediting Dr. Fauci that voted for President Donald Trump. 

The social media network for public health should not be abandoned at the end of the pandemic either. A network for ‘truth scaling’ on many or all issues, void of political partisanship and in support of truth, trust, science and democracy, can offer a long term buoy against the malevolent forces of social media. The U.S. government doesn’t have to continue absorbing the lies of those with bad intentions, all they have to do is empower willing Americans to say something to help their fellow Americans.