For Ioana Coman, Ph.D., an assistant professor in public relations, observing disinformation amidst a global pandemic parallels her interest in crisis communication.
When the pandemic struck in 2020, Coman's scholarly interests turned in part to the crisis communication response to misinformation and disinformation about COVID-19. She currently is part of and oversees multiple research projects investigating false information during this crisis and exploring different aspects of the responses to COVID-19 vaccines through social media platforms. For example, one of her studies looks at fact-checking organizations' impact on social media and their dialogic engagement with their respective audiences.
“My research looks at how different actors—organizations, individuals, media, etc.—act, react and interact within different crisis and risk communication contexts, such as health outbreaks, vaccine communication, and terrorist attacks, via different media platforms and at different levels,” Coman says, highlighting how her research especially focuses on new and social media.
Understanding the health orientation motive and thought process behind individuals has always been important to Coman's international and domestic research. Building upon recently published research that sought to understand international receptivity to measles vaccinations, she is currently exploring key factors that influence an individual's perception of health information sources in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The factor impacting us more than ever is the loss of trust in science,” Coman says. “Individuals are growing less likely to have a basic understanding of science, and during a time of crisis, health organizations have to communicate to the public in a period where information is uncertain.”
Coman remarks this was a trend prior to the global pandemic.
“It's nothing new. We've already experienced this trend with the flu and measles vaccines, but the COVID-19 pandemic elevated this feeling of uncertainty in the public,” Coman says. “From a professional perspective, if you look at initial responses in Italy, scientists and government officials repeatedly communicated their efforts to retain the spread. From a public's perspective, it's awful for the public to see officials fail, and thus, in return, their trust erodes.”
With this decrease in trust and the concurrent communication of uncertainty among professionals, Coman describes this moment as fuel for the anti-science movement, bolstering established anti-vaccination groups against the COVID-19 vaccine.
“The problem starts when you don't educate the public,” Coman says, “because the waves of misinformation fill in the knowledge gaps for individuals. The number one agenda pushed by those spreading anti-vaccination misinformation is money. They're making profit off the people who believe in their misinformation. You'll have these actors push the idea that big pharmaceutical companies are making money off individuals, so you shouldn't buy from them. Almost always, however, those actors have an alternative to the solution by providing essential oils or natural solutions.”
Coman notes that a number of influencers claim to have the cure for the virus, from garlic juice to their own natural supplements, further spreading misinformation and creating confusion.
She also says research shows that education is not always an indicator for whether an individual consumes or spreads false or inaccurate information.
“The individuals who fall for these claims are not always those with low education or lack of understanding, but rather the opposite,” Coman says. “We have highly educated people falling for these claims because the sources filling their social media feed are not credible sources. These are not bad people because you can tell they want to best protect themselves. They just listen to the wrong sources of information.”
Coman also highlights the large role social media platforms' sharing algorithms play in determining an information source's prominence and perceived credibility.
“By default, the way social media orientates itself, everything that gets you views generates shares among people,” Coman says. “It develops an echo chamber in which the same misinformation gets shared across multiple sources, and that leads people to believe it's true because they've seen it multiple times.”
With a background in journalism and public relations, Coman hopes to use her research to build a bridge connecting science and communication and urging scientists to become better communicators.
“Traditionally, the health organizations present their information very factually with numbers and scientists as their credible sources,” says Coman. “It was very much a one-way street. They didn't need stories or emotional appeals. However, we have seen that anti-vaccination actors use emotional and personal stories to push their agenda because they resonate more with people than factual stories.”
Consequently, Coman is noticing an increase in the number of doctors and scientists joining social media to deconstruct disinformation. She notes TikTok is seeing an uptrend in credible sources fighting the Infodemic War.
“There are a lot more doctors who are trying to educate people,” Coman says. “Now I'm seeing them answer questions directly and counter the misinformation. The more individuals you have establishing and connecting an educational relationship, the easier it will be to have the same footing as those who spread disinformation.”
Coman describes the disinformation problem as a shifting one. Whereas individuals were initially concerned about the accuracy of the information they were consuming, some are now part of the process that spreads inaccurate or false information.
“Be strategic,” Coman tells her students. “Be logical. Understand what you can do to start being part of the solution and not take part in spreading disinformation.”