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Prioritizing Authoritative Content During COVID-19

Important new strategies for elevating

Evidence-Based Public Health Information

The overwhelming flood of non-authoritative commercial COVID-19 information has drowned out critical messaging from public agencies whose mission is to inform the public with evidence-based information. Agencies whose mission has always been to reach mass audiences in a crisis are getting buried online.

This is about more than just search

How people look for information, and where and how quickly they expect to find it, is all shifting rapidly. In the era of COVID-19, a clear over-abundance of mid-value content, created and distributed by millions of people (and in some cases machines) on a by-minute basis, has accelerated this evolution to entirely new levels of complexity while creating a significant new governmental challenge.

Our instant access culture has prioritized the concept of the search engine "snippet" — the 1-3 sentence blurb search engines scrape from the internet and deliver to users to offer quick answers to common questions.

For the ordinary user in ordinary circumstances, snippets are generally helpful. Instead of forcing users to navigate to a new webpage, voice-activated assistants can simply read an answer out loud in 10-20 seconds. These smaller abstractions of data, including "fragments", "handles", and "fraggles", are just some of the ways the major content aggregators are seeking to decompose, absorb, and repurpose information to meet our insatiable cultural appetite for on demand answers from our mobile devices, voice-driven assistants, and more.

Publicis Sapient’s government team has partnered with a number of U.S. government agencies and institutions to find new ways to ensure the public receives and absorbs evidence-based public health information in a timely fashion.

Over the past 10 years, new technologies and filtering algorithms have presented unprecedented digital barriers that require new strategies to ensure agencies can break through the cacophony of unreliable posts, tweets, websites, and forums that seek to share similar topical information.

More than ever before, people look to their smartphones for answers to critical questions. Instead of going to trusted websites or other direct sources of information, people are posing these questions to the major search engines, voice assistants, and each other. Convenience is queen.

However, COVID-19 has shown us that this convenience comes at a cost — especially when it comes to critical public health information. Fast answers, served up by ever-reprioritizing machines, do not always prioritize the evidence, accuracy, or nuance required when the topic is a critical public health emergency.

“COVID-19 has shown us that this convenience comes at a cost —especially when it comes to critical public health information.”

How do voice-activated assistants ensure answers come from credible, authoritative sources? How does your smartphone know which answers can be summarized in a few sentences and which are going to require additional context? These are situations where technology has advanced faster than the policies, content structure, and governance needed to fully vet its impact.

COVID-19 provided a test-bed environment that put the limitations of some of these tools on full display. When it comes to evolving health topics, aggregators clearly need help discerning critical, up-to-date information. The traditional models used to weigh and prioritize source authority – digital publishing record, referrals and cross promotion models, frequency of content updates, depth, focus, and share ofvoice around a specific frequently-asked question, as well as other evolving algorithms, do not necessarily support the traditional slower, steady, and reliable work of medical researchers that is so critical in a pandemic scenario.

Technical and scientific authorities must find new ways to distinguish critical guidance from well-optimized marketing and advertising copy designed to look technical. This is not a quick fix. Agencies must invest in the human and technical resources and expertise required to stay relevant in a world that has universally prioritized fast access to information over more carefully acquired evidence-based knowledge.

“Technical and scientific authorities must find new ways to distinguish critical guidance from well-optimized marketing and advertising copy designed to look technical.”