Patient people are pushing back against a tsunami of cherry-picked, false, misinterpreted information that is being brought to the vaccine conversation. So let’s start with a set of values and principles about care for our children – the people suffering the most from this harmful environment, writes Jess Berentson-Shaw. 

Opinion: On Thursday I got off another Zoom presentation to health and social care workers on how to talk with people with concerns about getting vaccinated. I’m doing a lot of these at the moment. 

I was just playing the supporting role to Professor Nikki Turner. Nikki is the head of the Immunisation Advisory Centre, and a GP. If you have never heard of Nikki, it’s probably because she has just been head down, for decades now, improving New Zealand’s vaccination delivery systems. Nikki has forgotten more about how to have good conversations with people about vaccination than most people will ever even know.

As Nikki talked and people asked questions of us both, something started to upset me. Because what Nikki and I were being asked about wasn’t just the normal, “What do people need to feel reassured?” questions, it was more than this. They were detailed, anxiety-driven questions about how to deal with extensive, overwhelming amounts of false information.

There is a tsunami of cherry picked, false, misinterpreted information being brought to these conversations that people simply cannot deal with effectively.

It is not the only thing by any means driving people’s concerns about vaccination, but the volume and speed of false information is certainly adding to the barriers to vaccination that are already there. Helping to build concerns into high walls that are hard to tear down.

As Nikki pointed out, staying compassionate and respectful in the face of so much false information is hard. It wears you down. The time it takes, the patience required to reassure people. And it’s upsetting because it didn’t actually have to be this way. 

Start with a set of values and principles about care for our children – the people suffering the most for this harmful environment. Have a goal to build and maintain a robust and healthy information environment that our children can navigate their way through independently.

The information shambles that so many of us, health care workers, friends, family, strangers, are dealing with, was a mess made by a smallish group of people allowed to do incredible damage to our information environment over recent decades.

The absolute mountain of false and rubbish information that our communities are having to try and push back in these conversations is there because we have not been adequately protected against the damaging algorithms that people who run social and digital media make their money from.

The people with the means and power to do so in our government and businesses have not acted soon enough with enough care. Now most of us are suffering for it, our vaccination champions especially. It is intolerable and  irresponsible. But we can do something about it.

Applying the precautionary principle

False information isn’t new. It’s always been used by people with the means and power to take what they can.

And we have extensive knowledge to intervene and protect people before it can hurt us. Protecting people from the false and harmful information that undermines understanding and good decision-making, is a critical factor in being able to effectively respond to not just global pandemics.

Making sure information cannot be used in damaging and harmful ways on people will also enable us to respond more effectively to climate change, and other large-scale collective issues that need deeper public understanding and support for effective action.

We need the right scaffolding for a healthy information environment

There is much important work focused on stopping the more extreme end of false information, such as monitoring and stopping increasingly unhinged narratives, and the violent extremism it engenders.

However, this reactive work, while critical, is far downstream of where we need to start. Here are a few ideas on the upstream changes that could make a big difference.

Start with a set of values and principles about care for our children – the people suffering the most from this harmful environment.

Have a goal to build and maintain a robust and healthy information environment that our children can navigate their way through independently. An information environment that empowers them, buoys their self confidence, and aspirations for themselves and our world. And scaffold that.

Ensure people in a core public organisation are responsible for our information environment from a wider public wellbeing perspective. The public service has the mandate and means to do something. At the moment no single organisation holds this responsibility in the public services.

There are bits and bobs of activity sprinkled across different organisations, including in the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet and DIA, but the buck for the health of our information environment as a whole stops with no one.

So make it someone’s job and then create a plan and build it. The options and opportunities are wide ranging and exciting. For example:

  • policies to help shape and support people to create new and innovative digital media systems that are underpinned by care and empowerment of our kids (as well as regulation to control the current harmful ones) 

  • a strong public interest media strategy

  • a plan for the public service to increase its capacity and capability to deliver complex and critical information about what they are doing and why it matters, as the Auditor-General recently noted in the draft report on public sector accountability. We are long past the stage of believing the mythology that so-called “neutral provision of information and data” by the public service is in any way effective or useful. In fact it is now just harmful that core institutions in our society are communicating in ineffective ways, while our information environment is being so effectively manipulated by other players. Here is a talk I gave to public servants on this issue recently.

  • Evidence-based programmes that teach children to identify the key strategies of people who use false information. Tohatoha is running one with school librarians called “It’s a bit sus“. We also need to teach kids how to advocate for and even build a better information environment for themselves.

The opportunities here are endless, the potential for wellbeing improvements across society huge. It is a critical piece of long-term policy work that needs to be done. Because information is a determinant of our health and wellbeing, this pandemic has made that more than obvious.

It is about caring for people in our lives

Nearly 100 percent of people in Auckland have had their first vaccination.

It’s an amazing collective effort, and emphasises that getting vaccinated is just what we do: if a preventative health intervention exists, we use it.

It’s not that people don’t have concerns, it’s that they feel okay enough with those concerns to get vaccinated.

And that hasn’t happened by chance, it happened because people cared enough to listen and support people through some tough conversations made so much worse by our harmful information environment.

Let’s make that environment a healthier one. For next time.

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