Dear Pandemic is a web and social platform created in March 2020 after the founders, public health researchers, became inundated with queries about COVID-19 from family and friends. Looking back at their experience, Dear Pandemic (now Those Nerdy Girls) team members developed a qualitative analysis of 3806 questions that were submitted on the Dear Pandemic website between August 30, 2020 and August 29, 2021.
Their analysis was published in a special PRI-curated issue of the Journal of Health Communication: International Perspectives, entitled Leaving No One Behind: Opportunities for improving future pandemic-related communication. Authors include: Rachael Piltch-Loeb, Richard James, Sandra S. Albrecht, Alison M. Buttenheim, Jennifer BEAM Dowd, Aparna Kumar, Malia Jones, Lindsey J. Leininger, Amanda Simanek & Shoshana Aronowitz.
The analyses resulted in four themes, each reflecting an unmet informational need of Dear Pandemic readers, which may be reflective of the broader informational gaps in our science communication efforts.
- The Need for Clarification of Other Sources: In many cases, readers referred to word of mouth information about which they needed clarification. In some instances, readers sought assistance in engaging in respectful dialogue with a family member or friend. Many posts referenced the specific person who shared the information or the specific source of information that they were asking Dear Pandemic about. The most commonly referenced sources of information were a member of the person’s offline social network, a clinician either offline or online, and other individuals on social media.
- Lack of Trust in Information: There was an inherent lack of trust in traditional sources of information expressed in a variety of questions. For example, several inquiries insinuated that the reader did not trust the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommendations or “the government” and also questioned the motivations of those in the healthcare system.
- Recognition of Possible Misinformation: Several questions contained a description of another piece of information, an interpretation of that information by the reader, and then an ask to Dear Pandemic in reference to that information. While the question to Dear Pandemic typically seemed to suggest the reader did not support the prior interpretation, at times, it seemed the reader was not sure what to believe, and may have been swayed by the information, demonstrating the doubt-mongering effectiveness of misinformation even in subjects who may be more highly informed and inclined to trust official or presumed-authoritative sources.
- Questions on Personal Decision-Making: There were numerous instances where a reader was seeking information in order to make a health decision. Of the questions included, vaccination was the most common topic. Inquiries had to do with safety of vaccination, side effects, ingredients, effectiveness, long-term consequences, particularly for vaccination of children and fertility-related concerns (together accounting for over one-third of all vaccine related questions). Additional topics of interest included herd immunity, usefulness of restrictions enacted by governments, mask wearing, the severity of COVID-19, and hygiene practices. There were very few questions related to testing.
These findings may help clarify how organizations addressing health misinformation in the digital space can contribute to timely, responsive science communication and improve future communication efforts.