Henry Collis, Deputy Director, National Security Communications, Cabinet Office and Prime Minister’s Office Communications, Government of the United Kingdom (virtually)
Melinda Frost, Technical Officer for Risk Communication & Community Engagement, World Health Organization (virtually)
Miroslava Sawiris, Research Fellow, Democracy & Resilience Programme, GLOBSEC Policy Institute, Bratislava
Led by: Julia Belluz, Senior Health Correspondent, Vox, Vienna
The discussion focused on the spread of disinformation and conspiracy theories around the vaccination against COVID-19. It further delved by addressing the effect disinformation has on vaccine rollout and ways in which trust can be built around vaccination. Miroslava Sawiris stated that there is a link between conspiracy theories, disinformation and the vaccination rollout. She added that the issue of disinformation having an effect on vaccination rollout varies largely across different countries.
According to Melinda Frost, with any vaccination come questions and uncertainty. That is why this idea naturally fosters the spread of disinformation about itself. She added that the WHO is working on how to track disinformation, how to respond to it and ensure the spread of correct information to limit the reach of false claims.
According to Henry Collis, disinformation does not create a division. Rather, it thrives from the division already created inside the population. He claims that the issue is not only about the lack of trust in the vaccine, but also about the lack of trust in government institutions. He stressed that it is of the utmost importance for governments to overcome the barriers of trust with different groups of citizens. He added that while it is necessary to create the demand for accurate information, it is just as necessary to teach the population to detect disinformation themselves. Additionally, he stated that it is also vital to ensure that accurate information is brought to those audiences in a way they find trustful. This can be done by finding trusted messengers, which are personalities that resonate with the masses. More specifically, finding individuals that resonate with local communities as well. Melinda Frost agreed with the need for strategic communication and states that it is very important that every time the WHO communicates, they think about who they are communicating with. She added that it is necessary to find different mechanisms for people to detect relevant information about vaccination.
According to Miroslava Sawiris, there is a large problem with global conspiracy theories and the way they are able to influence particularly small communities. She added that this really exemplifies the power of the internet in spreading false information. She mentioned that disinformation and conspiracy theories resonate with different parts of the population. Furthermore, she noted that disinformation and conspiracy theories are connected to the mistrust in government institutions and the mainstream media. According to Henry Collis, it is important to understand how to win over audiences and more importantly also understand that some audiences cannot be convinced.
The debate ended by focusing on some solutions, and all panellists agreed that the key to fighting disinformation is through efficient strategic communication. Miroslava Sawiris added that strategic communication requires tailoring, particularly to the specific views and needs of individual groups of citizens. The panellists further agreed that it is important for the institutions to gain the trust of their people. Melinda Frost added that it is important to build trust before the next crisis comes because it is not possible to build it during a crisis. The panellists also pointed out the need for international cooperation and the need to learn from countries that are successful.