Stefanie Friedhoff: Straight Talk About Information Disorders

Stefanie Friedhoff

The co-director of the Information Futures Lab dives into practical strategies to combat mis- and disinformation at the 26th annual meeting of the Rhode Island Public Health Association.

Stefanie Friedhoff, co-director of the Information Futures Lab (IFL) and associate professor of the practice in the department of Health Services, Policy and Practice at the Brown University School of Public Health, delivered the keynote address at the 26th annual meeting of the Rhode Island Public Health Association (RIPHA) on November 15, 2022. Her presentation, “Building Misinformation Resilience for Public Health: A Practical Guide,” defined mis- and disinformation, explained what every public health professional needs to know about the nature of information and information inequities, and offered a strategy for how public health practitioners can best engage with people in a low-trust media landscape.

“Misinformation doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It is enabled and empowered by the structure of our information ecosystems,” cautioned Friedhoff. She warned that our current, top-down mode of communication in public health is outdated. “People are looking for connection. They’re looking for meaning. They’re looking for people who they can trust in an environment that’s all over the place and confusing. It is only when relationships of trust are built that accurate information can be received and integrated into a person’s knowledge and belief systems.”

What are the solutions for public health practitioners and communicators? Friedhoff noted that calling out bad actors, and highlighting their manipulative practices, may be a good foundation. “Studies show that is actually a very effective approach. Nobody wants to be manipulated. Nobody wants to be messed with. So explaining how not every online doctor is actually a doctor, or how narratives are designed to emotionalize you – that is an effective tactic that works across different populations.”

In her talk at RIPHA, Friedhoff discussed the ways in which disinformation actors systematically appeal to fear and anger to move their audience in the desired, divisive direction; how they rely on photos, memes and videos to elicit a powerful emotional response. “Public health communications need to be more visual,” Friedhoff said. “ Because our relationship with information is emotional, we need to start with content that is engaging and captures our attention.”

Another key feature of effectively engaging people online is to “start with empathy and meeting people where they are at, no matter how much misinformation they may be repeating,” A key feature of many social media platforms, as they are currently designed, is that they reward snark and adversarial conversations because that drives up audience reactions. “But this also often drives people further down the rabbit hole.” Friedhoff explained.

The IFL’s report, Infrastructures of Trust: the Case for Investing in Vaccine Demand, released this fall, offers a simple list of 12 practices and policy recommendations for public health communicators. The first recommendation, “empower communities to lead,” stresses operating at the grassroots level. “Paradoxically, our national misinformation strategy has to be local,” Friedhoff said. “It is important for authorities to give local community organizations more control and enable them to co-design initiatives, communications and messaging. They are already in the community and trusted by the community. They also know the questions that people have.”

by Carl Dimitri