⛑ Recruiting community leaders to fight misinformation
“Families are struggling, clinicians are struggling”
⚔️The Surgeon General’s toolkit for combating misinformation
⏳Updates Are Available: Revisiting finstas and teens on social
Imagine your neighbor seems to have started following conspiracy communities online and is beginning to believe increasingly outlandish claims. How might you talk to them about this?
Situations like this can be extraordinarily difficult to navigate by yourself. A conversation could potentially become hostile. Would you even know how to begin? You might turn to a trusted community member like a doctor, a pastor, or librarian for help, but they might also be at a loss.
Luckily, there are strategies for appropriately engaging in situations like the one above in Surgeon General Vivek Murthy’s recent publication, “A Community Toolkit for Addressing Health Misinformation”. According to Kyla Fullenwider, Senior Advisor for the Surgeon General, the stakes are incredibly high for combating public health misinformation.
There’s a lot of research that misinformation has undermined public health measures against Covid-19, including vaccination efforts. Think of all the horse medicine, bleach, and modern day snake oil that Americans have ingested over the last two years on the advice of someone from social media. Misinformation can also wreak havoc on personal relationships. “Families are struggling, clinicians are struggling,” says Fullenwider. “It is a real issue in people’s lives.”
In July, Surgeon General Murthy issued a historic advisory on public health misinformation. The advisory took a broad approach, addressing many different groups — educators, health professionals, journalists, researchers, governments and tech platforms and funders — while framing the issue positively to inspire change. That positivity resonated with our vision at New_ Public, and many of the advisory’s recommendations overlap with our Signals:
But beyond the advisory, the Office of the Surgeon General, in partnership with the Office of Evaluation Sciences, felt an urgency to create something immediately useful, says Fullenwider. “One thing we heard when we were talking to community members, and just broadly the public, as the advisory rolled out, was that people were really struggling with this issue in their lives in a very real and tangible way,” she says.
This urgency led to the creation of “A Community Toolkit for Addressing Health Misinformation,” which was released last month. As opposed to the broader advisory, the toolkit focuses on leveraging “trusted messengers.” These are divided into four general groups: health care professionals and administrators; teachers, school administrators, and librarians; faith leaders; trusted community members. According to Fullenwider, the information in the toolkit is considered more trustworthy when coming from trusted messengers than from the government or even local news.
Fullenwider says her office worked with New_ Public Advisory Board member Claire Wardell, co-founder and Executive Chair of First Draft, in creating practical, step-by-step recommendations. Throughout the design process, they engaged groups of trusted messengers on what would be most helpful. “They really shaped what the Toolkit ended up looking like and the content that was in there, based on what they were telling us they were dealing with in real time,” says Fullenwider.
According to Fullenwider, the format is much more accessible and re-mixable than a typical dry report would be. With more user-friendly resources, Fullenwider says, “People end up reinterpreting them, adapting them, putting them into church newsletters and presentations for their classes. I'm pretty confident that the resources here will find their way into all sorts of nooks and crannies.” To make the toolkit even more useful, Fullenwider says a facilitator’s guide and Spanish-language version are in the works and will be released soon.
I think this point about empowering community leaders is worth underscoring. Too often, when there’s a problem with how people are behaving on social platforms, the first (and often, only) approach that the media, lawmakers, and other stakeholders take seriously is fixing the code. Even well-meaning people who aspire to make social platforms healthier spaces consistently undervalue the role humans can play in solving problems having to do with human behavior. Sure, tweak the algorithm, but also give librarians the tools they need to empathetically and confidently assist angry and confused library patrons. This is yeoman’s work, and a valuable, real-life reframing of what a “moderator” can and should be.
Our communities are built on these kinds of people-based support systems. You can call it the civic fabric, or our social infrastructure. Yes, in the United States it has been diminished over decades, but trusted messengers are still essential, as evidenced by how deeply the Surgeon General’s toolkit leans on them. If we want our communities to thrive, then support systems and trusted messengers must be incorporated into the next generation of digital public spaces from the very beginning.
You can download the toolkit and printable infographics here. Have you ever tried to confront misinformation in your community, or amongst your family and friends? Leave a comment here or contact us on our website if you’d prefer to remain anonymous.
Occasionally, we’ll see an article or website that fits perfectly with something we’ve written about previously in the newsletter. In this feature we will revisit a newsletter essay and offer some additional thoughts about something we’ve published.
How teens use their social accounts
The setup: Before we even knew the name “Francis Haugen,” the Facebook Files were making waves in the Wall Street Journal, leading to congressional hearings. Some internal Facebook documents referenced the popularity of finstas, or fake Instagram accounts.
The newsletter: We wrote about researcher Mary Madden’s article in New_ Public magazine about teenage social use, including finstas:
Again and again, tweens and teens told Mary that they’re looking for different ways to use social media, preferring, as she put it, “decentralization, multiplicity, and digital diversity" when socializing online. And what’s more punk—or decentralized—than teens using social media in unauthorized ways that suit their purposes?
The TWIST: In a new piece for Mashable, self-described “Gen Z cusper” Elena Cavender says finstas are out of fashion and now rarely used amongst teens. She attributes the change to the introduction of Instagram’s Close Friends Stories in 2018, the rise of Snapchat and TikTok, and norms within Instagram shifting towards casualness and shopping. The piece is ultimately anecdotal, but well reasoned and well written.
The crux: “Finstas documented my microgeneration’s adolescence. They are a photo diary full of forgotten memories, past obsessions, and friends you’ve fallen out of touch with — not necessarily the people and behavior you want to be reminded of into adulthood.” –Elena Cavendar.
Pitch us by Wednesday
This is your last reminder that we’re interested in pitches for the next issue of New_ Public Magazine, on the theme of “trust” (and what it means for the internet). We’d love to see more pitches for fiction, visual stories, and multimedia in addition to prose articles. Pitches are due by next Wednesday, December 15.
Thinking about how weird it is that the plural is “Surgeons General,”
Images from “A Community Toolkit for Addressing Health Misinformation” from the Office of the Surgeon General, here. “I Want You for U.S. Army,” by James Montgomery Flagg, 1917.
New_ Public is a partnership between the Center for Media Engagement at the University of Texas, Austin, and the National Conference on Citizenship, and was incubated by New America.