“Misinformation undermines our ability to reach Latino and Black, Indigenous, and People of Color with effective communication strategies to encourage COVID-19 vaccination,” was the core message Assistant Professor of Communication Yonaira Rivera conveyed when she testified to the U.S. Senate on April 15, 2021.
Rivera testified before the Subcommittee on Communications, Media, and Broadband, part of the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, during the hearing titled “Shot of Truth: Communicating Trusted Vaccine Information,” chaired by U.S. Senator Ben Ray Luján, D-NM and ranking member of the committee U.S. Senator John Thune R-SD.
“We should address digital health literacy among adult populations to help reduce the spread of health misinformation. But interventions at the platform level are also imperative.”
Rivera, who earned her Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health, is an expert on understanding how Latino communities engage with health information and misinformation on social media, and how this engagement can impact their health decisions. Another area of her expertise lies in understanding how social media can be used to communicate with and mobilize communities before and after disaster.
In addition to her academic research, Rivera has worked as a community health educator for Latinos in Florida and Puerto Rico, and she is a co-founder of the grassroots organization Puerto Rico Stands, which she helped organize after Hurricane María to assist community leaders in Puerto Rico find and implement long-term relief efforts.
In her testimony during the hearing, Rivera addressed three critical areas: the role of social media in the spread of misinformation about COVID-19 and the power of such misinformation to undermine coronavirus vaccine communication campaigns among Latino and other BIPOC communities; effective methods and tactics to reach Latino and other BIPOC communities with evidence-based messages to effectively increase their willingness to become vaccinated; and lastly, the need for more research to understand these broad and complicated issues.
Despite federal and state government efforts to share timely and accurate information about COVID-19 and vaccines, Rivera testified that many members of Latino and BIPOC communities still face concerns about and barriers to vaccinations. The reasons, Rivera said, “include medical and government mistrust, confusion about vaccines and where to get them, language barriers, and misinformation related to access, who is eligible, and fear of getting COVID-19 from the vaccine.”
Rivera said findings from her research on cancer misinformation on social media, which focus on Latinos ages 40-75, “highlight that many individuals do not have the time, skills or motivation to adequately verify content they encounter. Instead, they trust the sources who share it – despite the content having low scientific credibility and being distributed by potentially unreliable sources.”
Rivera stressed that blanket messages will not be successful because Latino and other communities of color are not monolithic.
Given these findings, Rivera said, “we should address digital health literacy among adult populations to help reduce the spread of health misinformation. But interventions at the platform level are also imperative.”
The second part of Rivera’s testimony centered around the question of how the government “can reach Latino and other BIPOC communities with evidence-based messages to effectively increase vaccine uptake.”
The three main recommendations Rivera made to Congress include:
- Utilizing community health educators or other trustworthy figures to deliver evidence-based messages on social media and beyond.
- Counteracting misinformation by disseminating culturally-tailored narratives.
- Partnering with local organizations and community leaders in bottom-up outreach efforts.
Explaining these suggestions further, Rivera stressed that blanket messages will not be successful because Latino and other communities of color are not monolithic.
She also emphasized the “importance of leveraging trusted sources when reaching Latinos and other communities of color. This is instrumental, as building trust takes time and cannot be done overnight. We need more people who look like us delivering messages, more scientists who understand our communities conducting the research, and more funding directed towards our communities and organizations to end the disparities we face.”
The third major point Rivera included in her testimony is the need for more research in these areas. “Addressing vaccine hesitancy and health misinformation is an extremely challenging endeavor. There are still many questions we do not have answers to, making this an important opportunity to get it right and fund research and communication initiatives that adequately meet this challenge,” Rivera told the Senate.
Listen to Rivera's live testimony here. The hearing starts at min 30, and Rivera's testimony begins at 54:20.
Read Rivera's written testimony here.
In the Media:
Santa Fe Reporter, April 15, 2021, “New Mexico Reports 230 New COVID-19 Cases and One Death.”