Finding the facts in an infodemic: framing effective COVID-19 messages to connect people to authoritative content
The public’s need for timely and trusted COVID-19 information remains high. Governments and global health agencies such as the WHO have sought to disseminate accurate and timely information to counteract misinformation and disinformation that has arisen as part of an ‘infodemic’—the overabundance of information on COVID-19—some accurate and some not. In early 2020, WHO began a collaboration with Google to run online public service announcements on COVID-19, in the form of search ads displayed above results of Google Search queries. Web-based text ads can drive online searchers of COVID-19 information to authoritative COVID-19 content but determining what message is most effective is a challenge. WHO wanted to understand which message framing, that is, the way in which ad information is worded for the public, leads searchers to click through to WHO content. WHO tested 71 text ads in English across four COVID-19 topics using a mix of message frames: descriptive, collective, gain, loss, appeals to values and emphasising reasons. Between 11 September 2020 and 23 November 2020, there were 13 million views of the experimental WHO text ads leading to 1.4 million click-throughs to the WHO website. Within the set of 71 ads, there was a large spread between the most effective and least effective messages; for messages on COVID-19, the best performing framings were more than twice as effective as the worst performing framings (18.7% vs 8.5% engagement rate). Health practitioners can apply the messaging tactics WHO found to be successful to rapidly optimise messages for their own public health campaigns and better reach the public with authoritative information. Similar collaboration between big technology companies and governments and global health agencies has the potential to advance public health.