Health Misinformation in the Time of COVID-19

by Lisabritt Solsky, NHPHA Membership Committee Co-Chair, Vice President of Strategy and Corporate Development at Granite State Independent Living

Yesterday the U.S. Surgeon General issued a declaration regarding the spread of false information regarding COVID-19 and coronavirus vaccines. Why? In short, because nearly all loss of life due to COVID-19 right now is preventable and avoidable. And public health professionals are all about avoiding preventable and unnecessary death and illness.  

Unfortunately, the web is a pretty unregulated place, and people can be nefarious. Moreover, since the Fairness Doctrine was abandoned in 1987, the Federal Communications Commission can no longer ensure that radio and broadcast journalists present fair, balanced, unbiased, and credible information on matters of public interest, especially those that are controversial. Essentially, the places from which most people consume information—the web, TV, and radio—have no obligation to ensure the accuracy of information presented. They are encouraged to do so, but anyone who has encouraged a teen boy to play less Fortnight knows how that ends up. Some outlets pride themselves on responsible content, while others are looking to attract advertisers, and unfortunately, these priorities can be at odds with one another in a culture in which sensationalism rules.

“But my first amendment rights!” Free speech does have limits. We cannot yell “Fire!” in a crowded theater when there is no fire and we know there is no fire. Why? Because it will incite panic and potentially harm people. Oliver Wendell Holmes opined from the U.S. Supreme Court in 1919 that information that was both false and dangerous was not protected by the First Amendment, whereas benign false information is protected speech. We are approaching a point at which some claims about COVID-19 and the vaccines are the metaphoric “Fire!” in a crowded theater. The bad information, spread for malevolent reasons, will increase the number of people who die.  

Earlier this year, the University of Syracuse issued a brief with five steps to identify misinformation and thus (hopefully) prevent its spread, which is don’t spread/repeat information from unknown and unverified sources. You can find the entire brief at https://ischool.syr.edu/5-ways-to-spot-misinformation-and-disinformation-online/. Following are the CliffsNotes for how to identify misinformation:

  1. Analyze the content and the source. Does the content seem too good to be true, fantastical, dramatic, and/or contrary to other information you’ve seen? Who is the author? What is their qualification to discuss the topic? Think Gwyneth Paltrow and Goop. She has zero qualifications in health and wellness and yet peddles all sorts of pseudoscience about the benefits of jade eggs for—well, just Google it if you don’t know. This is a family publication.  When you Google “most ridiculous Goop products,” you will see a lot more crazy overpriced oddities from the company that defy logic. Googling is good advice, not just to find out what keeps Gwyneth so busy now that she’s “semi-retired” from acting. Researching the source or creator of content that seems off or sensational is a great way to see if the content has been debunked or criticized for lack of credibility or if the creator has a reputation for spreading inaccurate information.

  2. Determine whether it is misinformation or disinformation. Misinformation leads to mistakes, such as how misplaced commas can completely change the meaning of a sentence. 

     

 
Misinformation also includes items people believe to be true but are not. For example, the other day I was ready to call out a source that said Burkina Faso was a country because I was sure it was the capital of Ghana. Guess who was wrong? Me. Guess how I confirmed before putting my size 9’s in my mouth? Through the Google! But had I said, “hey, Burkina Faso isn’t a country!” in that you’re-a-moron tone I learned from my teenage daughter, and I was believed, that would have been misinformation.

Disinformation, on the other hand, is patently false information, masquerading as true, that is spread in order to advance an agenda. For example, in 2016 two different legitimate-seeming outlets shared Pope Francis’ choice for the U.S. presidential race. The outlets were trying to persuade certain voters to go in a particular direction. However, as was proven later, the Pope did not have a public opinion, nor did he endorse a U.S. presidential candidate.  

  1. Analyze the intent of the post or piece. Inflammatory visuals and phrases are a giveaway. Think of the political ads that run right before an election, when all of the candidates are just slinging mud. Or late-night As Seen On TV! advertisements that are selling a product that is sort of a solution in search of a problem and shows some nincompoop trying to strain pasta and making a huge mess because it’s just so hard! and whose problems are solved by the miracle colander for $19.99. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=geNqKgves5s


  1. Rely on and use authoritative sources. Visit reputable sources for the information you seek. Rely on Mayo Clinic for health-related information, not Mel’s House of Medicines.  


  1. Evaluate how the information conforms to your own beliefs. OK, this one is hard. It requires identifying confirmation bias,which is the tendency to interpret new evidence as confirmation of one’s existing beliefs or theories. Confirmation bias is tricky, but it is the bread and butter of many websites. So if you dislike Brussels sprouts and you visit sites that hate on these vegetables, you might start to believe that all the smart people know Brussels sprouts are gross. Then a site pops up saying Brussels sprouts cause cancer or infertility or blindness, and now we have some bogus information confirming your anti-Brussels sprouts bias, and it sure is tempting to believe. 

The Surgeon General has issued this call to action for individuals as well as content creators. While I don’t hold out hope for Facebook or Twitter to up their self-policing game, we can all do a small part to prevent spread of bad information. And it might just save a life.  

 
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