A look at the state of misinformation about COVID-19 in Canada.
by Heloise Chapuis, Science & Policy Exchange (SPE)
More than 2 years into the pandemic, and as countries, including Canada, progressively begin to loosen public health measures, unfortunately, misinformation is still very much present online.
In 2021, SPE held a public forum involving experts in science communication and information literacy in an effort to promote meaningful discourse between stakeholders on health misinformation issues supported by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR). The report published by SPE highlighted the extent to which health misinformation surrounding sanitary contexts imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic and how this has impacted Canadian society as well as global public health.
Let’s paint a brief portrait of the misinformation landscape in Canada.
9 out of 10 Canadians affected by misinformation
The numbers speak for themselves: in February 2021, 90% of Canadians had been exposed to misinformation. According to a report by Statistics Canada published that month, 96% of Canadians found information about COVID-19 online, and this habit was exacerbated by the fact that the population was subject to strict health measures, including curfews and stay-at-home orders in some provinces. However, the internet is also the main source of misinformation, particularly on social media and online news websites. Among the Canadians who were informed this way, 90% had at least once read information that they considered dubious, misleading or simply incorrect. These figures are all the more alarming given that only 21% of Canadians, or 1 in 5, systematically checked the reliability of information, 40% believed the information before discovering that it was false, and 53% shared it without being certain that it reflected the truth.
The infodemic, a social media virus
Far from being confined to Canada, these statistics illustrate a problem of global proportions, which the World Health Organization (WHO) has called the infodemic, or misinformation pandemic. The infodemic is “an overabundance of information — some accurate and some not — that makes it hard for people to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance when they need it”. The problem is that misinformation spreads and reaches a wider audience much faster than true information. According to a 2018 study, this phenomenon is observed in all areas of information, from politics, urban legends, business, terrorism and war, to science and technology, entertainment and natural disasters. Such a rapid spread is partly due to one of the main mediums that allows its dissemination: social media. During the COVID-19 pandemic, 85% of misinformation was spread through social media, where 83% of Canadians, one of the most socially connected populations in the world, are active.
From petitions challenging the obligation to get vaccinated, to false claims about the side effects of vaccines, their content, the origin of the virus and many others, the spread of misinformation can have a devastating effect on public health. Misinformation can encourage disobedience to public health authorities and refusal to get vaccinated. Such behaviours jeopardize the collective effort to combat the spread of the virus.
But the good news is that debunking pays off!
The common concern that debunking efforts would make the situation worse by repeating misinformation in order to correct it is actually unfounded. This was revealed by a study by Timothy Caulfield, Canada Research Chair in Health Law and Policy. Indeed, “while the speculation about the problem of spreading is rooted in evidence about the possible impact of exposure to misinformation, there does not appear to be much direct empirical evidence that debunking actually has this problematic impact”. The benefits therefore outweigh the risks, and debunking efforts are crucial to effective science and health policy: “Misinformation is one of the great challenges of our time” Professor Caulfield told the Ottawa Citizen, adding that “not only does misinformation create physical harm, it erodes trust in our institutions, it erodes trust in the community, and that is a significant issue”.
Canada puts #ScienceUpFirst
Many initiatives have been put in place to fight online misinformation, which can be found here, such as #ScienceUpFirst, a nationwide effort launched in late January 2021 by Senator Stan Kutcher of Nova Scotia, Professor Timothy Caulfield and their team. In partnership with the Canadian Association of Science Centres (CASC), COVID-19 Resources Canada, the Health Law Institute at the University of Alberta, and funded by the Public Health Agency of Canada, this independent scientific collective of researchers, experts and communicators across Canada is working to make available the latest science on various aspects of the pandemic, including vaccines, the virus itself and government responses. Their evidence-based, creative, and bilingual content can be found, and shared, using their #ScienceUpFirst hashtag, on several social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn, Tiktok and Youtube, as well as on their website. Science Up First also presented a panel on innovative tools and strategies to debunk COVID-19 misinformation as part of the 13th Canadian Science Policy Conference (CSPC) centered around “Building Forward Better” in 2021, which can be found here.
This effort had previously been led by Public Health Ottawa, who published a series of tweets which are now considered as the model for dealing with the growing threat of misinformation about COVID-19.
Whilst online initiatives are much welcome, the overabundance of information available online calls for us to think critically about every encountered piece of information, which might not have been yet debunked when appearing on our feed.
As per the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada’s (NSERC) guide on “How to be smarter than our brain”, navigating (mis)information requires striking a “delicate balance between remaining skeptical and keeping an open mind”.
Distinguishing between facts and opinion, being aware of our own cognitive biases, carefully analyzing the content, where it was published and by who, and diversifying the sources are all great ways to break the cycle of misinformation, which affects all of us, on or offline.