Future Tense

How Not to Lose the COVID-19 Communication War

Anthony Fauci in front of a faint charts showing possible curves of COVID-19 infections.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Alex Wong/Getty Images and Morris MacMatzen/Getty Images.

This article originally appeared in Issues in Science and Technology.

COVID-19 has put science in a tricky spot. The good news, as National Academy of Sciences President Marcia McNutt explains, is that scientific expertise is back in high demand: “When the chips are down and everything is on the line and you can be the next person in the hospital bed, it’s the experts that you want to listen to.” But there’s a serious potential downside for science in having the public’s ear: Today’s high-profile expert assertions can be disproven by tomorrow’s events. For example, if public health interventions such as social distancing are effective, COVID-19-related deaths in the United States could stay well below predictions offered by epidemiological models. Successful policy interventions might seemingly prove early expert estimates “wrong.”

This dilemma illustrates a much larger problem facing scientists, public health professionals, journalists, and science communication practitioners: A focus on accuracy and scientific facts is the wrong and even potentially misleading measure of good communication during this global pandemic.

Scientific communication guidelines, such as those adopted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, have always placed great emphasis on the imperative for accuracy and the resulting need to fight misinformation. Following their lead during the COVID-19 crisis, public health professionals, media organizations, government agencies, and even former President Barack Obama warned against the dangers of misinformation. And in an open letter in April, more than 160 journalists and journalism professors singled out Fox News for failing to fulfill its “duty to provide clear and accurate information about COVID-19.”

This focus on misinformation and accuracy is understandable. Accurate scientific information is key for meaningful public debate and decision-making. And correctives to misinformation provide instant gratification during an otherwise unpredictable and potentially long-term crisis that so far has not provided scientists and policy-makers with a lot of success stories. Bodies such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the World Health Organization can quickly implement myth-busting and rumor-control websites with the reasonable hope of staving off a more widespread problem down the road.

However, as the COVID-19 “infodemic,” as WHO calls it, escalates, those communicating scientific information are at risk not only of oversimplifying the misinformation problem itself but also of failing to recognize and address other factors that complicate efforts to communicate effectively about COVID-19. In particular, the seductively simple directive to be “accurate,” which lies at the heart of science communication, obscures the reality that accuracy is a tenuous notion during a crisis such as this, in which uncertainty reigns. Science that was considered correct at the outset will likely turn out to be incorrect or incomplete, making it difficult to draw a bright line between misinformation and science that is legitimately contested. Further, just as the public health questions that arise during a pandemic go far beyond numbers such as death rates to include matters of social inequity and ailing health care infrastructure, the communication issues that complicate an infodemic are much broader than the mere existence of falsehood.

We therefore urge politicians, journalists, scientists, and communication practitioners who are part of the well-intentioned fight against COVID-19 misinformation to pay close attention to four major communication challenges.

Challenge 1: Scientific facts and uncertainties are moving targets.

The use of evidence in policy-making and public debate surrounding COVID-19 is complicated by a fast-changing landscape of scientific findings, facts, and uncertainties.
Unfortunately, according to Retraction Watch, “Much of the blitzkrieg of science that emerges in the coming days and weeks will turn out to be wrong, at least in part, and that’s not a bad thing.”

Although changing degrees of confidence are an everyday reality of scientific practice, COVID-19 studies are being prepublished and published—and then sometimes retracted or disproven—at such an accelerated pace that even experts struggle to separate signal from noise. Not only is there a lot the scientific community does not yet know, but much of what it thinks it knows—what it now considers “accurate”—could turn out to be wrong.

When today’s facts can easily become tomorrow’s fictions, it is difficult to even define “misinformation,” much less to “correct” it. And as with any moving target, taking a shot at misinformation in these circumstances may lead to unintended consequences, especially when it comes to the public’s trust in scientists or the scientific community.

Challenge 2: The COVID-19 information environment is partisan.

Even if the science around COVID-19 were more certain, communication strategies that focus narrowly on transmission of “the facts” would still be ill-advised. Indeed, there is ample scientific evidence that maintaining a heavy focus on accuracy in politically charged contexts is at best only partially effective and at worst counterproductive.

Ideologically divergent social groups, motivated to defend their own identities and value systems, maintain radically different combinations of values and facts to sustain their worldviews. Liberals and conservatives have a hard time agreeing on even the characteristics of the viral pandemic, much less on what should be done to stop it. When a CBS News poll asked respondents how well they thought “things were going for the U.S. in its efforts to deal with the outbreak of coronavirus,” 81 percent of Democrats answered “very badly” or “somewhat badly,” while 73 percent of Republicans answered “very well” or “somewhat well.”

It is tempting to write off these differences as products of tribalism and cultural echo chambers in a sharply divided electorate, but perceived differences in potential COVID-19 threats and solutions also highlight just how difficult it is to identify the “best available science” for any given policy choice in the middle of an emerging crisis. For example, the CDC’s recommendation that people should wear homemade cloth masks in grocery stores or pharmacies was lauded by medical professionals even as a National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine committee of experts concluded independently that “the current level of benefit, if any, is not possible to assess.”

Challenge 3: Science must get political without getting partisan.

As a partial solution to Challenges 1 and 2, it might be argued that highly trustworthy, nonpartisan actors should play the key communication roles in the COVID-19 crisis. The obvious candidates to fill such roles are scientists. Not only has public trust in the scientific community remained fairly high and stable over time, but it has done so without serious partisan cleavage even as trust in many other institutions has suffered decline and polarization. The CDC, for example, enjoys high trust among Democrats (86 percent), independents (76 percent), and Republicans (74 percent) alike.

Trying to bolster its own credibility in coronavirus matters, the White House has engaged in an aggressive campaign to cross-brand itself with CDC. Among other strategic communication tactics, for example, the White House has issued joint mailers with the CDC emblazoned with the title “President Trump’s Coronavirus Guidelines for America,” as well as online PSA-style advertisements showing National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony Fauci’s photo as part of the White House’s Coronavirus Task Force.

Although such cross-branding might help the scientific community to credibly communicate with a wide audience, it is not without its pitfalls, especially during a public health crisis in which the best available science might contradict particular policy stances or politically motivated disinformation campaigns. Broad trust in science does not mean that people across the political divide trust the same science or scientists. Fauci, known for frequently contradicting the president, was recently forced to enhance his security detail after receiving death threats from conspiracy theorists holding that he is a “Deep State” operative seeking to overthrow Trump.

Challenge 4: The accelerated wickedness of COVID-19.

As difficult as it might be to look beyond the current crisis, COVID-19 will likely emerge in the long run as a straightforward public health problem with a fairly clear, science-informed pathway toward preventive and therapeutic interventions. Many of the resulting therapies are likely to have broad societal buy-in, including effective and safe vaccines, routine protocols for treatment, and possibly even established behavioral norms for seasonal flare-ups.

But the short-term reality is much more complicated. Safe vaccines are unlikely to be widely available until well into 2021, and therapeutic and social interventions are being developed by trial and error as the virus spreads. Meanwhile, societies are faced with difficult decisions that science alone cannot answer. As a case in point, Italian officials attributed their early missteps in responding to the contagion to tensions between protecting public health and respecting civil liberties or maintaining the country’s economy.

Navigating these kinds of decisions will require wrenching trade-offs among values and group interests, and there will not be clear best-case scenarios. Although trade-offs are part of many science policy deliberations, the speed with which the pandemic has impacted society creates an urgency for difficult decision-making that is almost unprecedented outside of wartime. At least in the short term, COVID-19 therefore presents a perfect example of what the design theorists Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber in 1973 termed a “wicked problem,” where all proposed solutions seem to ignite intertwined, collateral effects that require real-time compromises among conflicting policies, values, and health concerns.

In the midst of this accelerated crisis, it is virtually impossible to determine which sets of “facts” are most relevant for making trade-offs required for effective action. Focusing narrowly on “accuracy” in COVID-19 communications can thus obscure the reality that many of the possible choices are rightfully guided not by utilitarian calculus but by values and relationships whose importance is independent of science altogether. In the scope of COVID-19, policy choices require myriad decisions likely to create both harms and benefits that are themselves unevenly distributed. For example, as society increasingly allows automated and intrusive surveillance measures to enforce social distancing protocol, how will it be determined whether such efforts have been “worth it”? Prevention by surveillance will cost a great deal in terms of civil liberties, but by acting in haste, society may overestimate its value or fail to ensure clear exit strategies after the pandemic. Sen. Ron Wyden’s pleas to include sunset clauses in the antiterrorism legislation proposed following the 9/11 attacks serve as a troubling reminder: “The idea was that these provisions would be more thoughtfully debated at a later, less panicked time.” Yet some of the most controversial sections of the Patriot Act, including Section 215, which authorizes the government to demand phone records and financial transaction data from companies without showing probable cause, remain in effect today.

Implications for communicating science (policy) after COVID-19

Just as there is no clear solution to COVID-19, there is no magic bullet for the infodemic surrounding it. How can decision-makers navigate these four challenges to more effectively communicate about both COVID-19 and future crises?

A first step involves separating questions that science can answer from ones that science cannot (yet) answer. Yes, COVID-19 is partly a public health problem, with clear science-informed solutions. And yes, implementing these solutions will rely at least in part on an informed electorate and policy-makers, and the communication of accurate information remains a paramount goal.

But scientists, policy-makers, journalists, and science communicators working together to inform public discourse will be largely ineffective unless they are able to meaningfully embed the best available scientific information within the amalgam of values and emotions that influence policy discourses surrounding COVID-19. This won’t mean that policy decisions will always be perfectly in line with what the scientific community might recommend. The idea that presidents and administrations implement policies that scientists do not like is neither new nor tied to a particular political party. Nor does it mean such policies cannot succeed. Policy decisions, almost by definition, will go beyond the best available science, especially during times of crisis. This means that scientists will have to engage in political debates in which they are not the only authoritative voice. As we noted earlier, scientists need to walk the difficult balance of engaging in such debates without being partisan.

Unfortunately, the current pandemic is also demonstrating daily how woefully unprepared society is to deliberate about the trade-offs that must be made due to the accelerated wickedness of COVID-19. The complex question of how soon to begin opening up the economy has already become hopelessly politicized, while the disproportionate economic and health costs of COVID-19 for minority and socioeconomically disadvantaged groups seem to be left out of discussions about the mitigation strategies the nation is putting in place.

Ultimately, broader debates about technical solutions to viral pandemics and—more importantly—their collateral long-term effects will need to involve a broad range of societal stakeholders, including policy-makers, industry, scientists, and the people most likely to be adversely affected by those interventions. Science communication that effectively informs those debates will have to attend as closely to the uncertainties, competing values, and trade-offs that society will face as to the accuracy of any particular set of “facts.”

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.