COVID-19: A Spread of Misinformation

by Zissis Hadjis Science & Policy Exchange (SPE)

The intent of this blog post is to speak out against false information by highlighting some of the tools and resources that you can use to spot and flag misinformation when searching online or listening to the news. In addition, SPE also recently made accessible a list of resources and trusted websites about COVID-19. Check it out here!

Misinformation, which is described as information that is incorrect or misleading, can pose a huge challenge for those who are looking to make important decisions and form nuanced opinions. While misinformation is nothing new to the Internet, it seems to be having a moment these days. In addition to the challenge of containing COVID-19, the public is also dealing with a wave of viral misinformation storming their feeds and timelines.

In late July, President Trump and his son Donald Jr. had tweets removed from Twitter for violating the company’s COVID-19 misinformation policy. The pair had shared a video, which was published by Breitbart News, from an organization called “America’s Frontline Doctors” which claims that masks aren’t necessary for stopping the COVID-19 and that hydroxychloroquine, zinc, and Zithromax are all suitable cures for the disease. As of the time of writing, the WHO asserts that there are no drugs that can cure or prevent COVID-19. Even a Canadian doctor, who is based in Ontario, recently had her tweet taken down from Twitter for spreading information about COVID-19 and hydroxychloroquine. While these tweets were taken down in the summer, Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk also mused about the potential benefits of hydroxychloroquine as the pandemic was taking off in the U.S. in March. While he didn’t necessarily endorse hydroxychloroquine with the same vigor as President Trump, it should still be noted that misinformation can come from various people and sources — even those who work on cutting edge science and technology.

Related to the uptick in misinformation is also an apparent increase in conspiracy theories — and conspiracy theory believers- following the COVID outbreak. In May, a documentary titled Plandemic erupted on social media and began getting a lot of traction on Facebook. Judy Mikovits, the virologist behind the video, claims that COVID-19 is a manipulated disease and wants to “expose the scientific and political elite who run the scam that is our global health system.” Science, amongst other outlets, has fact checked the documentary and debunked her claims as false, prompting Facebook, Youtube, and other companies to remove the video from their sites.

Fringe conspiracy groups, such as QAnon, have also seen an increased following on social media, according to research from the HuffPost and VICE. While QAnon is more complex than I’d like to delve into here, the group essentially believes that “ ‘deep-state’ traitors are plotting against U.S. President Donald Trump”, and that their anonymous online leader, Q, is a government insider that leaks coded secrets and prophecies to the public. There have even been instances of QAnon followers inciting violence because of their beliefs. The armed intrusion on the Prime Minister’s residence in early July was performed by Corey Hurren, a believed QAnon adherent. As of 2019, the FBI has designated QAnon as a “domestic terror threat”. The ability of conspiracy groups to spread false information so effectively, and inspire adherents to act on the group’s behalf, is what makes online communities such as QAnon deserve our attention. For example, Twitter announced in late July that they would be taking action and suspending accounts associated with QAnon, as well as block URLs that are related to QAnon, from being shared on the platform. While this is a step in the right direction, it’s important that we stay increasing vigilant of misinformation online and learn when and how to spot it.

While misinformation may seem more abundant than ever — there are several ways we can identify and combat the spread of misinformation. For example, reading a reputable peer-reviewed journal is recommended to cross-check scientific facts. While some journals unfortunately have paywalls and are inaccessible without subscriptions, journals like PLOS One, Nature Communications, and BMC Medicine are all good open access resources. You can even search in Google Scholar, too! While reading preprint publications (which are essentially completed drafts of a paper that are shared publicly before they have been peer-reviewed) is another way to stay up-to-date on scientific research, they come with significant drawbacks. As Anh-Khoi Trinh, VP Internal of Science & Policy Exchange mentioned in his April blog post about preprints, many of them lack scientific rigor and have “exposed the inadequacies of open-science”. While preprints are extremely valuable for scientists to receive faster feedback and visibility on an issue, it is important to realize that they may not all be reputable. Luckily, the volunteers at the Science & Policy Exchange have compiled a list of reliable Canadian resources, ranging from academic & governmental institutions, scientists, journalists, and science communicators. The full list can be found here.

While social media companies have slowly realized their crucial role in spreading and controlling misinformation on the Internet, we can’t expect them to filter all of it out. While we still need them to do better and take more responsibility, there are also certain behaviors and initiatives users can take up to be more vigilant and flag “fake news” when they see it. For example, the Evidence for Democracy (E4D) Truth Toolkit is a resource that helps people online do just that. In short, this tool shows how to combat misinformation by making sure what we’re sharing is accurate. It also gives some tips on what to do when being confronted with misinformation online! Furthermore, E4D provides a list of resources on how to communicate science effectively, as well as videos and more on misinformation. I highly suggest giving them a look if you have the chance!

While peddling half-truths and putting a spin on facts may seem innocuous or just part of “playing politics”, it is important to be critical about what we see and read online. While being more mindful and knowledgeable about misinformation can help lead us to make better decisions, it can also have even wider societal repercussions. For some communities, misinformation can have serious and tangible day-to-day impacts. During the pandemic, there has been a stark increase in displays of anti-Asian racism, often fueled by misinformation and stereotypes. Being vigilant online and flagging deliberately false information can’t be done solely by “experts”, it has to start at the community level and be everyone’s responsibility.

In my opinion, we need to trust science and have honest debates about policy, as well as make evidence-informed decisions, if we are going to tackle large, complex problems in the future (i.e. climate change) and interact in respectful ways with one another. Hopefully, these resources can help and are in a step in that direction.

If science communication is something you are interested in, reach out to SPE at contact@sp-exchange.ca, we’ll be happy to discuss volunteering opportunities with you!

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Science & Policy Exchange

A student-run non-profit that works to foster the student voice in science policy and evidence-informed policy-making in Canada. Based in Montreal.