Educate, engage, empower: Helping Canadians navigate the COVID-19 infodemic

Dr. Jeanna Parsons Leigh

These days it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the sheer volume of news, opinions, and discussions about COVID-19. The scale and pace of the pandemic are dizzying, but the speed and spread of information might be worse—especially since there is so much misinformation in the mix.

Experts are calling it an “infodemic”, a term underscoring the idea that the proliferation of information about a problem is actually getting in the way of the solution. This could very well be the case with COVID-19, as the deluge of legitimate and illegitimate information can affect health choices, behaviour, and even trust in public health authorities—all of which can negatively impact how individuals and entire communities respond to the pandemic.

Adding to the complexity is the fact that we aren’t all experiencing this information overload in the same way. Your own exposure to it—or, more precisely, your exposure to certain parts of it—could depend largely on who you are.

“There are a number of factors—such as where you get your information, where you are able to get your information, and what you do with it—that could be very different depending on your age, gender identity, socio-economic status, ethnic or cultural background,” explains Dr. Jeanna Parsons Leigh, a medical sociologist at Dalhousie University. “But that’s exactly what we need to know. We need to get a clear picture of how people are receiving, interpreting, and using information about COVID-19.”

To capture this picture, Dr. Parsons Leigh is leading a new research project focused on documenting levels of public awareness and understanding of COVID-19 in Canada. There are no simple fixes in the battle against misinformation (or the fear and stigma that it can cause), but it starts with investigating where people are finding information and how they are reacting to it.

“This is a unique opportunity to ‘check and correct’ in real time,” she explains. “If our research shows that people are misunderstanding public health messages or are being misled by specific sources, then we can work to counteract that with appropriate information campaigns—and hopefully quickly.”

The project consists of several layers. To kick things off, the team launched a national public survey to gather Canadian insights from coast to coast to coast. Those survey results are expected to highlight the scope and nature of any public knowledge gaps, which the team will then supplement with targeted follow-up surveys and focus groups to delve more deeply into specific public perceptions and to track those perceptions over time. With this information in hand, Dr. Parsons Leigh’s multidisciplinary team will develop a national “knowledge translation” campaign that will outline those documented public knowledge gaps and then provide evidence-based strategies to address them. The current vision for the campaign is that it will include videos and resources to support its key messages, making it easy for public health authorities and community groups to use the materials as part of their local COVID-19 responses. The campaign will also include customizable components to address region- or population-specific needs (e.g., material to counteract an area of misinformation shown to percolate amongst identified groups), and all materials will be translated into the five most spoken languages in Canada so that they can be made openly available and accessible to the public.

“All of this research is designed to ground us in a foundation of what we know and what we can do about it,” says Dr. Parsons Leigh, noting the importance of collecting data specific to Canadians rather than simply copying another country’s public education approach and hoping for the same success. “If we don’t know the state of things, then people get forgotten. We don’t want anyone to miss out on the tools they need to feel supported, to feel confident in their health decisions related to COVID-19—but we also can’t intervene and try to fix something if we don’t know where the problem exists.”

The team’s ultimate goal is to educate, engage, and empower Canadians of all stripes as we navigate the COVID-19 pandemic—and infodemic—together. Dr. Parsons Leigh emphasizes that one of the core principles of the work is that it must be research for people and with people, which is why the research team also includes several members of the public to co-lead each phase of the project. These public partners will provide input into the survey design and focus group materials, and they’ll help ensure that the results are easy to understand as part of the national campaign.

“We want our approach to resonate with people,” explains Dr. Parsons Leigh, “and we want the information we provide to be meaningful for their lives right now. We’re hoping to ‘click’ with Canadians anywhere to help strengthen the public health response everywhere.”

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