Celebrities, experts, and convincing on social networks (Part 2)

How to effectively convey public health messages in the midst of a pandemic? The challenge is crucial because, despite social fatigue, precautionary measures will have to be continued for months.

Tom Hanks, Kardashian or Dr Fauci?

How to effectively convey public health messages in the midst of a pandemic? The challenge is crucial because, despite social fatigue, precautionary measures will have to be continued for months. You can access part 1 of this series here.

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Previous research has focused on the content and formulation of these messages. For example, in 2003, the SARS epidemic showed that clarity and openness in the discourses of spokespersons were two key factors in optimising a communication strategy. But who is best placed to carry these messages? Celebrities, politicians, or experts?  

Just before the COVID-19 pandemic, psychology researchers had already looked into this question. According to their study results, experts seemed to be the least effective when it came to convincing on social networks. The health crisis was an opportunity to verify this conclusion.
Their second study1, recently published in the journal PLOS ONE, focused on the effectiveness of a message that encouraged the population to respect social distancing. This time the "match" was between spokespeople from three categories:

A fourth category was the absence of a spokesperson: the call for social distancing was then delivered anonymously.

The study

The survey took place from 24 to 30 March 2020 - two weeks after the WHO declared a "pandemic" - in six severely affected countries (Brazil, Italy, South Korea, Spain, Switzerland, USA). All six countries had issued recommendations for social distancing. With the exception of Brazil, public gatherings were banned or discouraged.

The study was designed as a randomised controlled trial in which data were collected through an online survey form. 12,194 respondents were recruited via Facebook, and separated into eight groups (by gender and age group).

When a respondent opened the survey, the message "Social distancing has been publicly supported by, among others..." was displayed, followed either by the identity of a randomly selected spokesperson or without a spokesperson being mentioned. Respondents were then asked to indicate how likely they were to share this message on their social networks.

Results

Across all countries and demographic strata, Dr. Anthony Fauci received the highest level of willingness to share his calls for social distancing. He retained his status as the most influential spokesperson regardless of respondents' level of sympathy for him. Next, messages from politicians in all six countries were the most likely to be relayed.

Tom Hanks, or the "no spokesperson" condition, were midway down the list. Kim Kardashian was by far the least effective spokesperson. The likelihood of the message being shared increased with the age of respondents, and when they also expressed positive feelings about the spokesperson.

Limitations

The study did not measure the actual data on message sharing, but instead the respondents' stated willingness to share them. However, previous studies have shown that such statements are followed up accordingly.

Only four spokespeople were compared. Further research is needed on spokespersons from other social spheres, including religious ones. Indeed, in this study, respondents' religiosity was among the highest correlates of message sharing.

It would be necessary to elucidate precisely what properties make one spokesperson more effective than another. Does it have to be a recognised expert? Do they have a medical degree, are of older age, and receive a great deal of publicity?

An interesting approach would be to repeat this study with a "series" of spokespersons with an almost similar profile, in order to identify which of their demographic or biographic specificities make them more likely to relay prevention messages more or less effectively. The effect of spokespersons is not identical in all segments of the population. Several spokespersons may be needed to reach the whole population equally. The sharing of prevention messages on networks can increase if it is encouraged by non-overlapping social circles.

Finally, it is questionable whether Dr. Fauci's "rise to prominence" can really be considered a global phenomenon. But the results of the study are consistent across the six countries, including those with very different cultural contexts where Dr. Fauci could be considered a 'mere' expert. The case of Brazil is special: the Health Minister played a similar countering role to the government as Dr. Fauci did in the US.

Conclusions

The researchers explain that "scientific experts and governments should not underestimate their power to inform and persuade in times of crisis, and stress the crucial importance of choosing the most effective messenger/spokesperson to spread vital information messages during a pandemic."

In order to combat misinformation, governments may be tempted to use celebrities to relay their messages. They may also find this effective in the context of the weakening of expert opinion over time. According to this study, it would be better to support experts.

Note:
The effect of spokesperson attribution on public health message sharing during the COVID-19 pandemic. Ahmad Abu-Akel, Andreas Spitz, Robert West.

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