“Preventing misinformation requires curating knowledge and prioritising science, especially during a public crisis.”—Joan Donovan, in Nature
During this pandemic, humankind has faced many challenges. We were not as prepared to the emergence of a new virus like we should. Now we rush to find treatments and a vaccine, in an exceptional collaborative effort.
While we tackle these new challenges, an old enemy emerges: misinformation.
Like a parasite looking for a host, it lurks in online cracks, feeding on fear, amplified by scammers and distrust about official information sources. Snake oil sellers thrive in uncertain times like these, throwing us their theories grounded in half-truths and spun like gospel.
But why do their theories get such a foothold in the public opinion?
HALF-TRUTH, HALF FANTASY, SPRINKLED WITH A DASH OF AGENDA
SARS-CoV-2 escaped from a lab. Ventilators make patients worse. Taking NSAIDs like ibuprofen increase your chances of being infected with SARS-CoV-2. COVID-19 is harmless to young people. You should eat garlic to prevent COVID-19. The list goes on and on. All these statements are false, but keep being shared, commented, multiplying like mushrooms after a rainy day.
The misinformation theories that seem to get more traction in the great echo chamber of social media are the ones that have their roots on a very distorted truth, taking advantage of the existing gaps on scientific evidence to create an alternative reality.
It is true that if a patient is on a ventilator for a long time, he has increased chances of sustaining some lung injury. But when the alternative is not breathing, I’d take my chances with a ventilator.
I previously made a rant on the ibuprofen issue, and garlic, well…save it for cooking. You can probably tell I’m already getting sour. That’s why I abstain from commenting on social media.
If you’re interested in knowing more about how COVID-19 misinformation, the Reuters Institute published a study where they analysed a sample of 225 pieces of false or misleading information to identify the types, sources and claims of the misinformation. Their results show that most of the misinformation about COVID-19 reconfigures true content, that “much misinformation directly or indirectly questions the actions, competence, or legitimacy of public authorities”, and public figures continue to play a big role in spreading misleading statements.
The authors finish by stating that “unlike the pandemic itself, there is no single root cause behind the spread of misinformation about the coronavirus. Instead, COVID-19 appears to be supplying the opportunity for very different actors with a range of different motivations and goals to produce a variety of types of misinformation about many different topics. In this sense, misinformation about COVID-19 is as diverse as information about it.”
SO…HOW DO WE STOP MISINFORMATION?
Like weeding a garden, fighting misinformation is a methodical, never-ending task. Weeds will grow back. This metaphor isn’t perfect, because some might say that weeds have their place in the world, and I believe that we’d be better off without misleading or fake information running freely in the world. And while weeding can be a contemplative and solitary endeavour, to stave off misinformation we need a sustained, collaborative effort.
That need for concerted action doesn’t mean we can’t act against misinformation. As an individual, this is what you can do:
- Don’t fuel controversy. Commenting on outrageous social media posts with a hot head just adds to the noise, and can further estrange those who are already suspicious of science.
- Aim for the doubters. As any political science expert can tell you, it’s nearly impossible to change the minds of hard-core believers. It’s the swingers you try to reason with. Your energy will be better spent with those who have a seed of doubt in theirs minds, maybe a sapling, but not a grown tree of certainty and conspiracies.
- Be responsible. Share accurate information, fact-check your statements, don’t stretch conclusions, and address limitations. A fellow pharmacist and virtual friend of mine, Carla Eisenstein, recently published a timely piece where she gives advice on how to tweet like a health writer. I confess I’m still learning how to use Twitter, so this is was a useful read.
- Don’t be paternalistic. No one likes to be patted on the head, and we have long moved past the “trust me, I’m a doctor”. Or have we?
Medical misinformation is a theme that I come back to often. My first article on Medical Writing journal was about it, co-written with my friend Mathew Wong. I’s a subject that fascinates and frustrates me.
One of my goals as a medical writer is to be a part of the greater effort to control the spread of misinformation, balancing it with accurate, sound scientific information.
I hope to have given you some spark to do the same.
Other posts you might enjoy: