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  • Writer's pictureEivind Engebretsen

How to combat disinformation through narratives?

In our book Mona Baker and I propose a three-step approach to combat disinformation through storytelling.

In a recent Lancet report, Sachs et al list nine global failures which contributed to an unsuccessful pandemic response, including "failure to combat systematic disinformation”. In our book, Rethinking Evidence in the Time of Pandemics, we suggest the best way to combat this “deadly infodemic” is to engage with the stories we are exposed to and how they come to be assessed by various constituencies.

Based on Walter Fisher’s narrative paradigm, which posits that all meaningful communication occurs through storytelling, we propose a three-step approach to combat disinformation.

1. We must acknowledge that people can only make sense of data by incorporating it into narratives. Rather than trying to resolve controversies by providing more facts, which is the standard public health approach, health authorities must engage with how these facts make sense to people, and why– i.e. with people’s stories.

2. We must analyse the values underpinning competing stories about the same events in order to understand how different individuals and communities come to believe in one narrative account rather than another. Take the diametrically opposed responses to arguments about mandating face masks during the COVID-19 crisis. On the one hand, these arguments were vocally rejected by some on the basis that the mandate encroached on their personal freedom; at the same time, others accepted the mandate willingly and saw compliance with it as a matter of moral responsibility.

3. We must critically assess the coherence of stories based on the values and principles they appeal to, and their credibility, i.e. whether they constitute good reasons for belief or action from the perspective of a given individual or community. In other words, we must take account of the specific social, political and cultural realities of a given population in order to understand why certain narratives resonate for them. Reasons for the persistent distrust in health institutions among Black and other minority populations, for example, cannot be dismissed as irrational: they arise out of their belief in narratives that are rooted in history and the specifics of their lived experience.

Ultimately, it is through narratives that knowledge about medical and other phenomena is communicated to others, enters the public space, and provokes discussion and disagreements. Effective narratives that take account of different values and lived experiences can enhance the reception of that knowledge and reduce some of the sources of resistance and misunderstanding that continue to plague public communication about important medical issues such as pandemics.

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