Reflections: The Social & Behavioural Change Communications Summit, Marrakech

The conference brought together thousands of social and behavioural change communications experts from all over the world.

The Social and Behavioural Change Communications (SBCC) summit was an intriguing experience for me: as a journalist and fact checker I’m a regular at industry events, but this was a unique experience to learn from health and science communications experts. I’ve compiled a few key takeaways from the sessions I attended in Marrakech, Morocco:

Surviving an Infodemic: Generating Infodemic Insights

Tina Purnat, WHO’s Infodemic Management Team Lead shared a mind-blowing fact during the first session.

“Do you know how long it takes in public health to translate evidence into an actual implementation in a country on average? 17 years.”

The COVID-19 crisis forced public health agencies to adapt and adopt a robust public health response.

WHO and UNICEF teams walked participants through an intense simulation-based crash course in generating infodemic insights. During the 3 hour session, we were tasked with conducting an integrated analysis to develop infodemic insights for a health ministry. It was quite an arduous task, but here are a few takeaways from the exercise:

  • There is no such thing as a perfect data source, a perfect infodemic manager, or a perfect insights report. However, we can gather data sources carefully, weigh their strengths and weaknesses, analyse each to distill intelligence from them, and then compile them into insights about the main themes of concerns, questions, and information voids that need to be addressed.
  • Not all mis/disinformation has equal potential for harm to health. A thoughtful infodemic manager develops a fuller picture of how the information environment is affecting individual perceptions and behaviour by triangulating diverse data sources and determining the level of risk based on the health topic in question, and health policy priorities. Recommendations for managing an infodemic in one local context may not be the highest priority or practical solution for another.
  • The focus should not just be generating an infodemic insight report but rather channelling the report to the right place. Some questions to keep in mind include: What are the different/right channels to share insights and measure activities? Who can have a seat at the table to make sure that the message goes out where and how is needed?
  • Be sure to regularly speak with stakeholders to understand their opinions on the design and utility of the report and solicit feedback for improvement.

Stories can be a powerful tool to fight misinformation and help bring data to life.

Sometimes, people who work in public health don’t really think about storytelling because they are taught about risk and absolute numbers.

These are difficult for the average person to interpret because they need to know ‘what does this mean to me in my day-to-day life? To my community?’ These numbers need to be translated to normal language that people can understand.

Dr Noha Hassan, an epidemiologist from Egypt, shared a story about how a few years ago a rumour started circulating that there was a meningitis outbreak in her country. Health agencies took some time to respond because they needed to conduct an outbreak investigation and thorough lab work. They eventually discovered that it wasn’t meningitis but heat exhaustion.

They did everything they could to create awareness about this, but it was challenging to convince people.

“We had to draft a statement telling people what heat stroke is and how to prevent it, avoiding dehydration, what to be on the lookout for (alarming signs) but people didn’t buy it. The rumour did not die. We still kept seeing the meningitis thing going around. When I first saw the concept of misinformation and disinformation, and information voids during the WHO infodemic training, I started to believe we could have done things much better.”

Identifying and prioritising misinformation

It was all fun and games at UNICEF’s vaccine misinformation olympics session, which was designed to equip participants with misinformation management and social listening skills.

Amidst all the fun (and winning), I learnt a few lessons:

The main question to ask when you come across vaccine misinformation is “how will it impact vaccination efforts?”

If it has no impact, don’t prioritise it. If the impact is limited, you need to identify if the misinformation is spreading online or in the offline community. If there are early signs of spreading, it presents a low risk and you need to prebunk to fill the information gaps. If it is actively spreading, it poses a medium risk and can be addressed by debunking to address underlying confusion and concerns. If it’s spreading rapidly, it presents a high risk and the rumour should be debunked directly and immediately.

Identifying the drivers of trust and mistrust in emergencies

“Trust is a very precious commodity- it takes a lot of time to develop, but it can take one incident to be destroyed.”

These were opening remarks by Cherstyn Hurley of the UK Health Security Agency.

Through the work we have been doing with Viral Facts Africa and the Africa Infodemic Response Alliance (AIRA) I could relate to a few of the issues that Hurley raised during her presentation:

  1. Be transparent

When rolling out a vaccination programme, define the disease, define the vaccine and make the information accessible so that people can digest it. Be honest about the potential vaccine side effects and tell people what to do in case of these. Be very honest and clear about it. Keeping a clear flow of information helps to build confidence because people know what to expect.

  1. Capitalise on positive sentiments

When you have a novel pathogen and a novel vaccine, you’ve got a lot less trust in place, look at the positive sentiments in existing routine vaccine programmes and identify how you can apply them to the new programme. Peer-to-peer signalling is very important. If people have a good experience, they are going to share this with others, and vice versa. When you have a huge information void as was the case at the start of the pandemic, you need to produce information swiftly and agilely, and then iterate as necessary. These voids left unaddressed lead to misinformation.

  1. Provide a Safe Space

Every individual needs one good conversation. They need a safe space to ask their questions. They must not be judged. Giving good answers to people’s questions builds confidence, maintains trust, and means that you are able to roll out your programmes and protect people from infectious diseases.

  1. Have The Difficult Conversations

Challenging as it may be, you must learn to have the difficult conversations alongside the positive messages. Be transparent about side effects that people are concerned about to maintain and preserve the trust that communities have in you. Make an iterative statement: start with what you have – “this is what we know, this is what we don’t know, this is what you should do” and then build on that. If you wait too long, the confidence is gone and you lose the trust that people have in you.

The summit was a great opportunity for the WHO infodemic management community to meet and discuss the challenges encountered during public health emergencies like the COVID-19 pandemic, and the lessons learned for the future. 

The pandemic highlighted the importance of providing accurate health information swiftly during a health crisis.

Collaborations such as the WHO infodemic management community and AIRA have been a powerful force to counter the spread of COVID-19, and especially vaccine misinformation.

Health misinformation is not going away, and the lessons learnt on infodemic management should not stop with COVID-19. They need to be employed during other public health emergencies to build trust and enable more effective public health policy and health messaging responses to future infodemics.

If you’d like to talk to us about our work on infodemic management, please get in touch.