Importance Of Dissemination The Right Message About Public Health

Do vaccines cause Autism? Does drinking fluoridated water reduce IQ? Is polio vaccination a ploy to sterilize and reduce the population? From a medical perspective, the definitive answer to all these questions would be ‘no.’ And yet, the web is populated by a cacophony of mixed opinions about these issues triggered by the proliferation of public health misinformation. Combating the spread of false information by simply broadcasting facts does not work.

Instead, there is a need for a thorough understanding of how misinformation is spread and what is an effective communication paradigm to debunk such myths. In this project, we propose to address these issues by exploring communication strategies to actively subvert public health misinformation in online communities. Public health misinformation can be defined as a health-related claim that is currently false due to a lack of scientific evidence. Health-related misinformation has detrimental effects on public health. According to researchers, many preventable diseases have re-emerged as a consequence of the drop in immunization rates due to declining trust in vaccines caused by misinformation on the web.

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According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), measles – which was declared to have been eliminated from the United States in 2000 – re-emerged in places such as Portland, Boston, Chicago, and Michigan. In fact, a staggering 30% increase was seen in measles cases between 2016 and 2017, most of which is attributed to online health-related myths. Besides, recent research found that Twitter bots were sharing content that contributed to positive sentiments about e-cigarettes in the U.S.

The U.S. is not the only country to face such an issue. Water fluoridation myths increasing the incidence of tooth decay in children in Australia, the surge of measles cases due to anti-vaccination campaigns in Italy, and the increase in the Ebola death toll in West Africa due to conspiracy theories are only a few examples of the negative influence of health misinformation in other countries. While misinformation itself is threatening, what is more, concerning is how its effects are exacerbated by the formation of online echo chambers.

An echo chamber is a closed group (or a sub-community) of people who echo the beliefs and opinions of one another and seek information that reinforces their existing views. Because these sub-communities discourage differing beliefs, public health practitioners and policymakers must grapple with the challenge of penetrating these echo chambers to disseminate facts. It is important to clarify that penetration does not simply mark the dissemination of the right message but also defines the extent to which that message is consumed and discussed in these communities.

Researchers at Berkman Klein Center recently found that public health information and interventions on the web by official sources such as the CDC was unable to penetrate communities where echo chambers rife with misinformation exists. There were two main reasons behind this failure: 1) these interventions employed a method of dissemination where the facts were simply broadcasted rather than strategically communicated, such as through social diffusion, and 2) the communication language and style were not directed to the target audiences (e.g., anti-vaxxers).

Returning to the first point on the methods of dissemination, it has been found from time to time that accessing populations through broadcasting is ineffective. What yields better outreach instead is the process of social diffusion , where information travels organically from person to person. This is simply because these online echo chambers thrive not on evidence-based proofs but rather on social or popular proofs, where it matters a lot which the messenger is and how popular the message is in the local circle. Concretely, it is much more effective if the message is received from a known (and trusted) person rather than a government official. But message-based interventions fall flat if the framing of the message and the message itself is not persuasive enough.

For effective health communication, it is imperative to focus on preference-based framing, where the preferences of the target sub-community are taken into consideration. With current network analysis and natural language processing tools, it is possible to tap into these echo chambers and determine the appropriate modes of communication for each sub-community. This includes analyzing the consumption and effects of different modalities of communication (e.g., videos, photos, text), mapping out differences in word choices, understanding different narratives, measuring the impact of gain- and loss-framed health messages (e.g., ‘if you get vaccinated’ v.s. ‘if you don’t get vaccinated’), etc.

The framing of the message is also heavily reliant on the value system of the sub-communities: some sub-communities get misinformed by fraudulent observational studies, while others are influenced by their religious beliefs. Determining the sources or the super-spreaders of the misinformation is crucial to formulate the right framing strategy. The research question thus is ‘What is an effective message, framing, and channel (in short, the communication paradigm) to debunk public health misinformation in these online echo chambers?’

What The Advertising Message Should Be Like

According to Jakobson’s model, the advertising message has to attract attention (phatic function), persuade (conative function), rely on reason (referential function) or emotions (emotive function), and get people to act (conative and referential functions). Jakobson’s (1956) multilingual function is not considered for the purposes of this study.

  • Referential function: the message conveyed by the advert is clear: it makes explicit reference to the “red taste of life” , including the most exciting aspects of life, among them, good wine.
  • Emotive function: the advert, with both verbal message and pictures, plays on the commonest feelings and emotions of each human being, like love, passion and general wellbeing. The audiovisual message presents all these feelings and emotions within a dreamlike atmosphere, set in a thick forest which refers clearly to the wine’s Italian name Selvarossa.
  • Phatic function: people’s attention is firstly attracted by the choice of particular audio-visual effects that isolate the red color only. The contact with customers is also established by a second-person message, which is directly addressed to its audience that feels immediately involved in what the advert promotes. In this way, people become more and more interested in what the advert/commercial advertises and are encouraged to buy.
  • Conative function: the advertisement’s verbal and visual messages, as said before, persuade people to buy. This function is fully accomplished by the use of the imperative in the verbal message, which pushes people to feel again or discover this series of emotions triggered by a glass of good wine.
  • Poetic function: this function is achieved by some peculiar choices related tokey-words and idioms. The message’s key-word is red, referring to strong feelings and sensations, to our red wine and, why not, to the Tre Bicchieri award, whose logo is red as well. The first part of the message, don’t bottle up your emotions is an English idiom, which contains the word bottle, always linked to the wine context, but having a different meaning as a phrasal verb correlated to feelings, emotions and sensations.

For this purpose, it seems appropriate to mention an interesting study carried out by the American linguists Lakoff and Johnson related to the metaphors of everyday life. The human body is listed below the container metaphors: “Bounded objects, whether human beings, rocks, or land areas, have sizes. This allows them to be quantified in terms of the amount of substance they contain.”

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This means that the idiomatic expression doesn’t bottle up your emotions could come from this culturally specific perspective, conceiving the human being as a container of feelings. This view seems to be confirmed by the fact that “various kinds of states may also be conceptualized as containers,” that is, the same feelings and states like love (He is in love), euphoria (he entered a state of euphoria), depression (he fell into depression), passion (his eyes were burning with a passion) are also conceptualized as containers of basic instincts that relate to the image of a liquid contained in a bottle.

These final remarks contribute to the definition of a wide series of interesting correspondences between red wine and ordinary people, being both actual “containers” of something special, extraordinary, and unexpected.

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