13th Jul 2020
3 Min Read

Combating the spread of Covid-19 misinformation at work

Lindsay Kohler
Lindsay Kohler
Behavioural Science

This article was originally published on 3 July 2020 on Forbes.com

As companies make return-to-work plans for their people, and offices slowly come back to life, concerns about personal safety regarding protection from Covid-19 are likely to abound. Employers will need to communicate their safety policies and activities, such as how frequently high-trafficked areas will be cleaned and rules for how many people can be on a floor at any one time. They will also need to invest in signage around the office reminding people of social distancing protocol, the need to wear masks, and handwashing best practices. Adherence to these guidelines, however, will partially depend on if people believe in the science behind the recommendations. This can be problematic because there are so many false sources of information in circulation regarding Covid-19. And as it turns out, some people are okay with spreading misinformation—which can hurt employers’ communication efforts around safety best practices.

Research published earlier this year in Psychological Science found that the more often someone encountered misinformation—even if they knew it to be false—the more likely they were to then spread that piece of false information themselves. It did not take numerous encounters with the fake information, either, for this to occur. Simply encountering a fake-news headline one to four times was enough for study participants to feel more comfortable in sharing it. So what steps can employers take to combat Covid-19 misinformation and protect their safety efforts?

Understand when rumors fly

When we repeatedly come across misinformation, is starts to seem more intuitively true. When that occurs, one side effect is that someone could feel less guilt in further spreading the incorrect information. The current climate also encourages this, as uncertainty and anxiety are key contributing factors for rumor spread. Rumor serves as an outlet for our anxiety. It gives us a conversation starter to explore our fears. There is even a basic law of rumor. It states that the more important a piece of information is and the more ambiguity surrounding it—and who can argue that Covid-19 doesn’t tick both of those boxes—the more likely the misinformation is to spread. Understanding that anxiety and uncertainty are large drivers of rumor spread can inform company’s communication strategies.

Provide one trusted source of truth

Audiences struggle these days to sift through the overwhelming amount of information that comes their way each day on a multitude of platforms. Trust is a hot topic; the 20th annual Edelman Trust Barometer reports that 76% of employees worry about false information or fake news being used as a weapon. So what can companies do to address this?

Survey after survey tells us that leaders can—and should—be the most trusted source of information within a company. Trust is more easily attained when the person giving the message is similar to us, so the messenger can often matter more than the message. Therefore, looking for common ground and similarities between the messenger and audience can go a long way in helping any corrective message land better. In these times of extreme uncertainty, the visibility of your leaders as the one source of truth is more important than ever.

Leaders will be on the front line along with internal communication teams to battle sources of misinformation that can start to spread within an organization. To enhance leader visibility in a remote working environment, keep in mind that whichever communication platform is chosen to amplify leaders’ voices, the ability to ask questions, even in text form, and have these answered in real-time, adds a vital dimension of interaction. A good question to ask when evaluating which communication channel to use is “How do I transform the idea of a traditional town hall?”

Stay the course with accurate messaging

While difficult, resist the urge to call out certain pieces of misinformation as blatantly false. Why? Because corrective information often fails to change people’s misperceptions—especially when the piece of misinformation is quite salient. Calling attention to the misinformation with a corrective statement can bring more attention to it, which is the exact opposite effect you want.

Rather, double-down on your multi-channel communication strategy for putting out correct information. Keep signs prominent in the physical environment. Make sure correct information is part of leader or manager briefings. Have a section on your intranet or enterprise social network dedicated to the most up-to-date and accurate Covid-19 information so employees know where to turn to for the source of truth.

Misinformation may be unavoidable in the current climate, but by understanding how it spreads and how to combat it, you’ll be better positioned to keep your employees safe.

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