A lot of false information is spread on social media, which means that using social media to provide reliable scientific data on COVID-19 is not an easy task. The danger is all the greater for young people, who get a lot of their information from social media.
People aged 18 to 29 are among the least vaccinated in Québec. As of Sept. 17, 72.9 per cent had received two doses, compared to 89 per cent of 50- to 59-year-olds and 73.8 per cent of 12- to 17-year-olds. Many are concerned about vaccination.
To respond to this group’s unease, we wanted to find an effective tool we could use to reach them and answer their questions.
So, we created the “Which Virus Are You” website, which explains COVID-19 in an interactive and entertaining way with the help of experts. It took off and became very popular within weeks after being launched. Here’s how it all started.
When Québec’s research agency Fonds de Recherche du Québec launched a call for projects “Jeunes dans la lutte contre la Covid-19” (Youth fighting COVID-19, we, a group of science communicators, thought about submitting an idea right away. The goal of the competition was to help students create innovative and creative digital communication projects that would address the COVID-19 concerns of people between 18 and 30.
Before the call went out for projects, our small team of PhD students had already had some science communication projects under out belt, including ComSciCon-QC. So, the ideas started flowing right away.
We quickly saw that while there were already many information sources about COVID-19, what was missing was a tool that made information attractive to young people, one that would make it possible for them to exchange and share ideas.
From the outset we wanted to “think interactive,” to get out of the straitjacket of the printed word and traditional reading, and actively involve the user. The other principle that was important to us was to have two-way communication: to listen, and not just provide information. We felt that traditional communication approaches around COVID-19 lacked reciprocity.
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Yet how do you get young people to share their feelings without generating an unmanageable amount of data? We knew an open forum would require hours of time to moderate and could potentially open the door to abuse. Direct virtual interaction with experts could only be sporadic and limited.
After a few hours of brainstorming, we came up with the idea of a multiple choice quiz. Quizzes are entertaining and can be fun. Most of us like to test our knowledge and share our opinions. It’s hard to resist a quiz like “Which Disney princess are you?” or “Which Hogwarts house do you belong to?”
Four virus avatars
The plan was clear: to design a question-and-answer quiz that would assign each user a “virus avatar” that represented their feelings about the COVID-19 pandemic. The next challenge was to build characters that represented the diversity of people taking the quiz while avoiding being judgmental. After doing preliminary research in media reports, and thinking about our own experiences and those of our family and friends, we came up with four “pandemic behaviours” that would be represented by our avatars: the super-informed, the worried, the skeptic and the detached.
In addition to the quiz, we also had to provide quality information to our audience. To do this, we needed the help of scientific experts on the subjects we wanted to cover. Under the leadership of Nathalie Grandvaux, director of the Host Response to Viral Infections Laboratory at the CHUM hospital’s research centre, our team of experts wrote the material and provided us with reliable up-to-date sources.
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It took a lot of work to synthesize and popularize this information to create accessible infographics. We then handed the material over to Impakt Scientifik to design the 10 infographics. For each of the avatars presented at the end of the quiz, we provide three fact sheets to answer users’ questions. The idea was to use the quiz as a fun tool to lure young people to the site, then suggest that they learn more by exploring the rest of the content.
Opening the dialogue on vaccination
We launched the website on July 16 and set up a social media strategy to reach a wide audience of young people who would have very different opinions than our own. To do so, we had to know their codes and the tools they were using. We were very active on our social networks all summer, posting every day. We received more comments than we were expecting on our posts.
The posts generated over 20,000 interactions (reactions, shares and comments), with some users questioning our content and others jumping in to defend it. The comments we got on the Facebook page were more aggressive or based on false information from dubious sources, which meant we had to spend time moderating them.
The platform allowed conversations about vaccines to happen between individuals with opposing views. It also allowed information to be shared between populations that do not generally interact. That convinced us we had chosen the right approach.
A formula that works
To date, our project has reached over 265,000 people through a combination of social networks (Twitter, Instagram and Facebook) and our website. The majority of users were between the ages of 18 and 34 and located in Québec, but our geographic reach was very wide and included other Canadian provinces, Europe and French-speaking Africa. We also got very positive feedback from science communication professionals. Some important institutions offered to help spread the word about our project.
While access to scientific information is an essential condition to get people to adopt public health behaviours, misinformation is rampant on social networks and confuses people. So it is essential to provide quality scientific information in an accessible and attractive format. In this way, we can stimulate young people’s interest in science and reduce the distance that still exists between experts and the public.
Important messages will only get across if you create a climate of trust and mutual listening, giving young people the tools they need to make good decisions and become the citizens of tomorrow’s society. The question that remains is how to encourage scientists to use these new forms of communication and give them the tools they need to do so.
Alexandra Gellé, a chemistry student at McGill University, and Émilie Dubois, founder IMPAKT Scientifik, contributed to this project.
Do you have a question about COVID-19 vaccines? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org and vaccine experts will answer questions in upcoming articles.
Marion Cossin received funding from the Fonds de Recherche du Québec for her PhD and for the "Which Virus Are You" project.
Alexia Ostrolenk received funding from the Fonds de Recherche du Québec for her PhD and for the "Which Virus Are You" project..