The world is searching for a vaccine for the coronavirus, and similarly, experts are searching for a solution to misinformation.
Both have spread rapidly. Both are dangerous and transmittable. And, as experts on all sides agree — the solution for either will not be easy.
“It will take a village,” Anatoliy Gruzd, an associate professor and Canada Research Chair in privacy-preserving technologies at Ryerson University, said with a laugh.
“It takes all of us — individuals, social media users, social media platforms, and health officials to combat misinformation. It’s like a virus. It doesn’t go away on its own.”
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While it’s nothing new — misinformation long preceded its coronavirus ties — the issue was highlighted this week by Canada’s top doctor, Theresa Tam, who reminded Canadians to be careful before accepting any information about COVID-19 online.
Tam said Canada is “in the midst of an ‘infodemic,’” warning that “false or misleading information can spread as fast as a virus.”
There will always be incentives for people to spread false information, said Gruzd, so learning how to detect it now will only put us in a better position in the future.
Misleading health content has become an increasing challenge around the world and it’s only accelerating.
The United Nations dubbed it the “new enemy” amid COVID-19, while the World Health Organization considers it a pandemic of its own — an infodemic.
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Canada has seen its fair share of false claims about the virus since March. From unfounded theories about diagnostics, prevention and cures, to claims trying to diminish the severity of the virus and its origins, and conspiracy theories about 5G networks accelerating the spread.
These untrue narratives have had an ebb and flow, according to Gruzd. They may still be around, he said, but the claims have changed as the pandemic has played out.
Vaccines are the latest target.
“Many of them are being propagated by the anti-vaccination community, who are raising questions about the effectiveness or safety of the vaccine. Some are going as far as claiming it’s part of this ‘plandemic,’ where the vaccine will have a chip inside of it to track people or control the population,” he said.
“They’re dangerous and untrue. The concern now is that this rhetoric goes mainstream. If a large enough part of the population believes this, it’s going to be difficult to reverse and difficult to convince people to take the vaccine.”
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The problem is “it’s hard to isolate” what actually made a person believe a certain false claim, said Gruzd.
It could be a combination of factors, he said, but “because we’re living in a connected world” it has become increasingly difficult to keep up with not only the still-developing science behind the virus, but also with changing recommendations and rules.
Even if the science is great, without consistent messaging, a “grey area” can form, said Vincci Lui, a librarian at the University of Toronto’s Gerstein Science Information Center, who conducts sessions on effective research skills.
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“And that’s where conspiracy theorists thrive,” she said. “That’s what they capitalize on.”
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The Trump effect
According to a new study released exclusively by the New York Times, there is one person at the crux of misinformation and conspiracies percolating online — U.S. President Donald Trump.
Researchers at Cornell University analyzed 38 million English-language articles about the pandemic from media around the world. The study narrowed in on 11 topics of misinformation, including one that claims the initial coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan, China was due to people eating bat soup.
It found that mentions of Trump made up nearly 38 per cent of the overall “misinformation conversation.”
The most prevalent topic, however, was “miracle cures,” according to the study. It pointed to Trump’s promotion of disinfectants and anti-malarial drugs as potential treatments for the virus as key false claims that garnered wide reach.
False claims from the U.S. president aren’t a surprise to Gruzd and Lui.
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Trump is a global figure, said Gruzd, so inevitably news outlets will latch onto what he says. Trump was also regularly appearing during White House press briefings during the period the study pulled articles from — January and May — so it checks out that his name is tied to many articles, said Gruzd.
But, “because of his office and role and following base, he was able to churn conspiracies theories that might not have been as popular or might not have been as viral as when he said it,” said Gruzd.
The researchers agree. The day Trump dangerously suggested that disinfectants might be able to treat COVID-19, articles categorized as “miracle cures” increased by nearly 10,000.
Regardless of where the misinformation originated, it often resurfaces in other places — Canada included. Gruzd said the amount and severity of coronavirus misinformation ruminating in any country has the ability to make matters worse than they already are.
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“There is a stark difference between the two countries,” said Gruzd.
“In Canada, more people trust public health officials to follow guidelines. We saw we were able to slow down the first wave. In the U.S., where you have a much more polarized society and less trust in the government and propagating misinformation about these treatments, you can see the outcomes are quite different.”
Fight it like the virus
There’s no silver bullet solution to combating misinformation, said Gruzd, especially now when information is coming at us daily and from all angles.
He emphasized that it does, in fact, “take a village.”
It starts with public health messaging. Gruzd said it requires a combination of public announcements, messages about the dangers of misinformation, and an emphasis on what’s credible. All of those messages need to be consistent, he said.
“At the start of the pandemic, there were daily briefings in Canada. A lot of people were paying attention to those,” he said. “I think the regular nature of informing the public is very important because those are the opportunities to talk about the misconceptions and address them immediately.”
Coronavirus misinformation is spreading — what is Canada doing about it?
Social media platforms themselves also play a role.
“Most people feel like they’re probably lagging a bit,” said Lui. “There is only so much they can do to moderate.”
Companies like Twitter, Facebook and Google have upped fact-checking and now label videos and other posts that spread misinformation about COVID-19. Many provide access links to official sources of information.
Whether people are acknowledging these warnings or clicking these links is hard to say, said Gruzd.
But as individuals, much of the responsibility is ours, he said.
And there’s a chance to make a significant impact, said Lui.
Lui, who created an online resource to fight COVID-19 misinformation, lives by the “verify before you share it” rule. She said, ultimately, people should look for red flags online.
“Is there loaded language? Biased language? Do they cite their sources? Is there a link to that source?” she said.
“People need to remember we’re all responsible for stopping the spread of the virus, but we’re also socially responsible for stopping the spread of misinformation as well.”
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