On Social Marketing as a Tool to Address Health Misinformation

By Brian Southwell

Key Takeaways:

  • The threat of health misinformation has received considerable news coverage in the U.S.
  • How institutions can best address health misinformation remains an open question.
  • Social marketing, which acknowledges audience information needs and which builds trusted relationships between communities and institutions, offers a useful path forward.

In 2021, the US Office of the Surgeon General characterized health misinformation as a direct challenge to public health. News coverage about misinformation as a challenge for healthcare and public health organizations has continued in the years since. Central to the challenges posed by health misinformation, though, are not just factual errors but also human beings. Human beings stand to be affected by exposure to inaccurate claims, human beings sometimes create and post fantastical falsehoods online, and human beings sometimes share inaccurate claims with their neighbors, family members, and friends. The challenges posed by health misinformation are social challenges involving people. 

Given this social dilemma, social marketing professionals conceivably could use their experiences with shaping public perceptions and motivating behavior change to offer remedies and solutions to address our seemingly dysfunctional information environment. At the same time, the ways in which we publicly talk about and approach the challenges of misinformation also hold great potential either to aid or harm the cause of misinformation mitigation. We should acknowledge we are facing a problem of human beings acting understandably to act in the world (even if in error), seeking information, and talking with other people rather than simply a problem of widespread brainwashing by magical misinformation.

Although exposure to health misinformation can exacerbate the challenges facing families who experience structural inequities and relatively poor health outcomes, for example, it is important that we avoid blaming people for the low-quality information to which they are exposed. We have little empirical evidence that people of different racial or ethnic backgrounds or different sexual identities or different geographical backgrounds actively prefer to rely on information they know to be false or inaccurate in making health decisions. Nonetheless, we sometimes focus on descriptive statistics which document misinformation exposure differences between groups of people rather than asking challenging questions about the structural forces which affect information access. 

Social marketing efforts to address health misinformation which focus exclusively on eradicating myths and overturning misperceptions without both acknowledging what legitimate questions people have about health and wellbeing and first seeking to build and maintain trust among audiences seem destined to fail. Rather than viewing misinformation as a problematic deficit in audience members we instead could view misinformation as symptomatic of a communication environment which has provided insufficient opportunities for people outside of scientific institutions to learn about and appreciate the procedures of scientific research or the interests which science-based organizations and laypeople share. Medical institutions and public health groups should view relationship-building as a remedy for misinformation, and it is that activity – relationship-building – for which the expertise of social marketing could be most useful.

Dr. Brian Southwell is Lead Scientist for Public Understanding of Science at RTI International, a nonprofit research institute based in North Carolina. In addition, he is an adjunct professor of Internal Medicine and an affiliate of the Initiative for Science and Society at Duke University, as well as an adjunct faculty member at the University of Delaware and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Brian also hosts The Measure of Everyday Life for WNCU 90.7 FM.


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