Dealing with the dog-health infodemic

Along with all the talk of the Coronavirus Pandemic, there has been a discussion of the parallel infodemic. The World Health Organisation (WHO) launched an online platform to combat misinformation and fake news which they described as an infodemic. It occurred to me that we could perhaps learn something from the WHO responses that would be applicable to the ways we tackle fake news and misinformation on dog health matters.

In the case of Coronavirus, misinformation was spread rapidly through social media channels and posed a threat to public health. “We’re not just fighting an epidemic; we’re fighting an infodemic”, said WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus at the Munich Security Conference on February 15th.

There has always been misinformation associated with health issues but the challenge with social media is that it is amplified and goes faster and further than ever before. That’s just as true in the world of dog health and the task for those of us in breed health leadership positions is to make sure dog buyers, owners, and breeders will do the right thing to improve the health of their dogs. We have to go further than simply providing information; we have to provide information that drives them to act appropriately.

We have to ensure people have access to trustworthy information, for example through data sharing and publication of peer-reviewed research. However, we know that such information has to be tailored to the needs of different audiences. For breed clubs, that means making their websites and social media channels the “go to” places for anyone who wants to find out about the breed. 10 years ago, all a breed club needed was a website with (at least) a few pages describing the characteristics of the breed, how to find a reputable breeder and information on the main health issues and what was being done about these.

Back in 2011, the late Philippa Robinson published her first Karlton Index Report summarising the work breed clubs were doing in the field of health improvement. Her second report in 2013 found 15 breeds with no online information at all and she scored 62 breeds (1 in 3) at less than 10 points out of the maximum possible 100.

Mobile-friendly breed information

Today, numerous social media channels have overtaken static websites as the first port of call for many people. It’s not just the younger generation that is hooked to their mobile devices, there are plenty of silver surfers who are just as tech-savvy and whose access to information is primarily through a mobile device. That means as a minimum, your breed’s website needs to be mobile-friendly. I recently discovered that our “Tips for New Owners” web page which we had only just rebuilt in 2019, just wasn’t working on all mobile devices. Half the tips weren’t being displayed so I had to rebuild the page layout completely to make it work properly on phones.

All this points in the direction of breeds needing a social media strategy as part of their overall communication plans. Most breed clubs have a Facebook page these days and that’s obviously a useful channel for disseminating news. There are also, inevitably, numerous owners’ groups for most breeds and it makes sense for breed club and health committee members to join these so they can provide the best available advice in response to questions from buyers and owners.

Goodwill and volunteers

Of course, all that takes time and we are reliant on the goodwill of volunteers. The reality is that most breeds probably don’t have enough people with time to devote to offering help and pointing to the best advice across multiple social media channels and discussion groups. One way to address that is to develop a network of supporters and advocates who are “on message” and can act to amplify your messages. Your network could include nominated Pet Advisors (we have 3 on our Dachshund Health Committee) and subject matter experts such as vets or vet nurses. Another useful group to build bridges with is the Admins of pet owner  Facebook Groups. In some breeds, these people will have access to thousands of group members which is a far wider reach than most breed clubs can ever hope to achieve.

The other way is to make the provision of relevant information more efficient. Instead of providing a bespoke answer to every question, it’s far quicker simply to post a link to the relevant page on your website. That means, of course, you need to have pages with good quality information on the most frequently discussed topics. You could also build a list of Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) and direct people to those.

Another way to improve the efficiency of how you disseminate information is to connect your various social media channels so that a post on one channel automatically gets posted on other channels. Many blogs, for example, enable you to cross-post to Twitter and Facebook without having to create new posts on these additional channels.

The best source of up-to-date information

One of the approaches the WHO has taken to provide clear, simple advice on Covid-19 is to create a series of infographics that other people can use to provide accurate information. These can be downloaded from their Covid-19 website which is the single best source of up-to-date information. The breed health parallel is to have dedicated websites for specific health concerns instead of having this information “lost” in a general breed website. In Dachshunds, we have created a dedicated website for IVDD (back disease) information and this includes a series of infographics and FAQs. Other breeds might do something similar for Brachycephalic issues or there might be value in the various brachy breeds to collaborate on a single site.

“Mythbusters” can also be used to challenge the nonsense and fake news that so often does the rounds of social media. It is well-known that closely-held false beliefs can actually be harder to rectify and sometimes this backfires, resulting in the false news being reinforced (the so-called boomerang effect). Successful tactics include story-telling, rather than presenting facts (appeal to the heart, not the head). Fear-mongering, the use of threats and specifically trying to change peoples’ minds are all notoriously unsuccessful.

One study of factors that caused articles about human vaccination to go viral on social media showed the most shared articles contained:

  • Statistics demonstrating the case being made, plus…
  • A bottom-line message with clear advice for the reader

Both factors had to be present for maximum impact. Articles that were just stories or without statistics were least likely to be shared. Interestingly, articles that acknowledged both sides of an argument (such as acknowledging occasional adverse vaccine reactions) before coming out with a clear bottom-line message were also seen to have high credibility.

There may be no way to prevent a COVID-19 pandemic in this globalised time, but verified information is the most effective prevention against the disease of panic. We should apply the same common-sense approach to communicating the evidence about breed health.

“Falsehood flies, and the Truth comes limping after it.”  Jonathan Swift, 1710

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