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Study of Zika Virus Misinformation Reveals Need to Rethink Public Health Messaging

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With the outbreak of an unknown disease, fear and misinformation can give rise to conspiracy theories and poor understanding among the public. A recent study of efforts to address misperceptions about the Zika virus revealed that public health campaigns need new strategies to be more effective.

Thomas Zeitzoff, associate professor in the AU School of Public Affairs (SPA), coauthored an article on the topic in the journal Science Advances. Other researchers included John Carey and Brendan Nyhan of Dartmouth College, Victoria Chi of the University of California-San Francisco, and D.J. Flynn of IE University in Spain.

The paper examined interventions to counter widely held myths in Brazil following a Zika outbreak in 2015-16 and an epidemic of yellow fever in 2018. An analysis of the results of several public opinion surveys found that giving corrective information on Zika did not change people’s minds about false claims; furthermore, this messaging actually reduced beliefs in the accuracy of other claims. The outreach efforts to educate people on yellow fever had some impact in shifting attitudes.

During disease outbreaks and epidemics, public health officials frequently struggle with strategies to counter conspiracy theories, which can keep people from taking preventive action and damage support for containment policies, researchers maintain.
“There needs to be rethinking on how to combat misinformation and conspiracy theories about disease epidemics,” Zeitzoff says. “We found the current approach from the World Health Organization and others is either ineffective, or in some cases might be counterproductive.”

Much of Zeitzoff’s previous research examined political misperceptions related to conflict. Often those instances are partisan: people know what is true, even if their political leanings discourage them from admitting the validity of the correct information. This study reveals the difficulty – and urgency – of finding ways to fight misinformation on an acute medical emergency in the face of hardened attitudes, Zeitzoff says.

 “There needs to be more work to figure out the best ways to give quality information to folks, especially when there is a lot on misinformation floating around on social media,” says Zeitzoff, who hopes this article will spur more research in the area. “Given the increased mistrust in authority and the general lack of trust in expertise we see in the U.S. and other countries, this is something that needs to be on the radar screen of policymakers and public health officials.“