A social approach to fighting COVID-19 misinformation

By Laura Otto
UWM Research
February 8, 2021

Growing up, Amanda Simanek saw how friends and family sought out her father, an automotive mechanic, for trusted advice on car repairs. Years later, she’s tapping into trust as a way to fight misinformation in the midst a global pandemic.

Simanek is an associate professor of epidemiology in the Joseph J. Zilber School of Public Health. Early in the COVID-19 pandemic, she joined an all-female interdisciplinary team of scientists who launched a social media-based science communication campaign to answer questions about this new disease.

The initiative, called Dear Pandemic, provides comprehensive and unbiased information about COVID-19, delivered in easily digestible question-and-answer servings through posts on the social media platforms of Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. Launched in March 2020 to help people navigate the onslaught of COVID-19 information, some factual and some not, the campaign now has more than 80,000 followers. “One of the key things we’ve learned is how fundamental trust is to successful spreading of science-based information,” Simanek says.

Those with COVID-19-related questions can submit them via the campaign website where previously answered questions are archived. The group uses a just-the-facts approach to provide practical, actionable information, and their followers often share and boost the messages.

“By communicating on these channels, we’re beating the spread of misinformation on social media at its own game,” she says. “Some of our posts reach upward of 100,000 people.” Those metrics give Simanek and her colleagues a good start in the natural next step: assessing how effective this intervention has been at stopping the spread of misinformation and affecting pandemic-related health behaviors. The questions submitted by followers also provide additional data on potential holes in public understanding of the pandemic.

Through this effort, Simanek and her colleagues are not only helping people know how best to protect themselves and others, but they are also laying the groundwork for researchers to understand best practices for science communication in the context of a global pandemic.

The team plans to continue its science communication efforts through Dear Pandemic as long as needed and may eventually transition the campaign into a permanent science education endeavor.