Earlier this year, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director General of the World Health Organization (WHO), warned, “We’re not just fighting an epidemic; we’re fighting an infodemic….(It) spreads faster and more easily than this virus.” Due in great part to the ubiquity of social media, the cacophony of false or misleading information can drown out the voices of public health officials trying to get critical facts to the public. The result can be deadly, not only for real people, but for principles of civil society held for ages, such as the common good and public trust in democratic institutions.
Combatting misinformation and disinformation–perhaps better terms for framing of the matter than “fake news”– is hard, important work. Many of us had no idea how difficult it could be until the pandemic. Just recognizing a post or tweet as untrue or dishonest is not always easy now even for professional communicators.
Why? The most basic reason may be that COVID-19 frightens us to the core. It goes beyond normal fears about our own mortality. Who has not worried about their loved ones’ safety? Quarantines and lockdowns exacerbate our anxiety, heightened by the isolation. As social beings in the midst of crisis, we look to each other for comfort and advice, and social media is readily at hand to connect us.
We want to share information that seems to offer a modicum of certainty or provide us with some kind of explanation for what is not fully understood even by medicine. A friend sends us a message with seemingly helpful COVID-19 news and we feel temporary calm when we read it. So, we in good faith pass it on to an acquaintance, who then posts it on Facebook from where it is replicated thousands of times. In all those transmissions of information, motivated by a common need or hope, did anyone check the origin of the first post?
Emotionally vulnerable, we of course trust what seems to make sense from friends, especially when it seems to be confirmed by many others on social media. In this way, much misinformation or disinformation is disseminated without malicious intent. Nonetheless, once it is discovered to be untrue or misleading, it is too late. The replication factor surges quickly.
It is helpful to distinguish between misinformation and disinformation. The former is not always intentional, even if it is not true. Misinformation responds to fear by offering simple solutions: COVID-19 will go away with warm weather; drink hot water every 15 minutes; do daily nasal rinses; eat curry, and so on. Or you can diagnose yourself by holding your breath for 10 seconds. These are dangerous in that they offer false security. Others are downright harmful, like drinking bleach, or eating from certain plants (like the poisonous datura) or drinking camel urine (which causes MERS-CoV). Not to mention the myriad scams that offer protection or cures that profit only the vendors. An astonishing catalog of all this can be found at https:// en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_unproven_methods_against_ COVID-19#Protective_equipment. Wikipedia is a source to be used with caution, but in this case, there is a great deal of annotation. In any event, it gives one a broad sense of the global scope of the infodemic.
Disinformation, on the other hand, is done with intent, even though those who spread it on down the social media line may be unaware of the purpose. Disinformation is often hard to recognize because its creation involves elements difficult to unravel. Here are a few to watch for: • The information is attributed to an unnamed scientist or doctor.
• It urges you to “please pass this on.”
• Very often it uses valid data—though they may enshroud a falsehood or be pieced together in such a way that the result is deception.
• The information politicizes scientific data or otherwise seems to have an agenda beyond public health.
• The science in it is not peer-reviewed or the information cannot be found elsewhere in a reliable source (more on this later).
One important, frequent feature of disinformation is that it confirms one’s bias. This is difficult to catch, especially for people of good will, because bias is not necessarily bad and is often unconscious. For example, most of us have deep concern for how marginalized people are exploited by corporations and ignored by governments, and we are suspicious of those powerful actors. Still, the reality can be more complex. What if the institutions involved include public health authorities backed by actual, accepted science? “Disinformants” count on the fact that our beliefs about the bad faith of the mighty will make it less likely we will check the science that counters the disinformation.
One good example of this is the notion that 5G networks somehow cause COVID-19. We want to care for our common home and are wary of technology that may harm the environment. Whether or not 5G is such a technology may need serious examination. But there is no peer-reviewed scientific evidence that it somehow gives rise to corona virus. The WHO has clearly stated that “Viruses cannot travel on radio waves,” and that 5G “could strengthen e-Health (telemedicine, remote surveillance, telesurgery).”
Worse, bias can be the gateway to conspiracy theories that are often well-funded with the goal of sowing confusion, so truth seems unknowable and trust in all institutions is damaged. The subject of conspiracy theories and their growing role in social media deserves its own treatment.
A case study of disinformation is the “documentary” Plandemic. Slickly scripted and produced, it looked and sounded like a legitimate work that could appear on any public television outlet in the world. It was first posted online May 4. The Facebook posting was taken down May 7, but by then it had been picked up and spread by numerous online groups, notably ones that propagated conspiracy theories, such as QAnon (see https://www.bbc.com/news/ blogs-trending-53997203). In its first week, it was viewed over 8 million times. The New York Times has a fine piece that tracks how it was disseminated even more widely. One wellcrafted posting can do exponential damage https://www. nytimes.com/2020/05/20/technology/plandemic-movieyoutube-facebook-coronavirus.html.
Plandemic presents Dr. Judith Mikovits, a research scientist who is allegedly the victim of unfair treatment by powerful interests. She co-authored a research study on a mouse retrovirus that posited a connection to chronic fatigue, published in 2009 in the scholarly journal Science. In 2011 the piece was retracted by Science because it could not be replicated in other laboratories, and this pointed to lab control issues in the original study.
It is imperative here to briefly note the role of peer review in science. The author(s) of a paper positing a scientific hypothesis based on research submit it for review by scientists in the same field and specialty before it is published. Once published, the theory is employed by others in the field to advance research. Given this rigorous process, it was a weighty decision for Science to retract her article. Two years later, Mikovits was arrested for removing lab notebooks and material from a site where she was working.
The film transforms all of this into a conspiracy to silence a whistleblower by a cabal of elites, because her work “revealed the common use of animal and fetal tissues were unleashing devastating plagues…,” allegedly impeding their scheme to make big money off a COVID-19 vaccine. Among the alleged bad agents trying to gag her was Dr. Anthony Fauci, internationally respected for his leadership in the battle against AIDS. Following from this premise, Mikovits warns of a host of things to fear that these elites are foisting on the public. Among them:
• “Wearing the mask literally activates your own virus. You’re getting sick from your own reactivated coronavirus expressions.”
• COVID-19 is the result of manipulated virus released from a Chinese lab. • Hydroxychloroquine is “effective against these families of viruses” (e.g., COVID-19).
• Flu vaccines increase the chance of getting COVID-19.
• When an interviewer comments about the billions “they” will make off vaccines, she adds, “And they’ll kill millions.”
These assertions have no accepted scientific evidence to back them and have been rejected across the scientific community, particularly by infectious disease specialists. Science took pains to respond to Mikovits’s story and claims https:// www.sciencemag.org/news/2020/05/fact-checking-judymikovits-controversial-virologist-attacking-anthony-fauciviral. Related evidence to the contrary are found in Nature https://www.nature.com/articles/s41591-020-0820-9; and in the international scientists network, Health Feedback https://healthfeedback.org/claimreview/claim-that-fluvaccine-increases-coronavirus-infection-is-unsupportedmisinterprets-scientific-studies/.
Plandemic’s message can be deadly if believed. It also erodes public trust in democratic institutions. The content of the film echoes extreme right-wing positions, often articulated by the current US president, which resemble the top three points above. Likewise the film attacks Dr. Fauci, the one public health official in the federal government whom most US citizens still trust.
The last two bullet points above reflect the views of the antivaccine movement, a possible threat to distribution of a safe COVID-19 vaccine and a challenge to the concept of the common good. Its disruptive potential was recognized by Russian intelligence, which carried out a Twitter bot campaign from 2014 to 2017 to cast doubt on vaccine safety. There is not room here to go into how Plandemic follows the pattern of a typical conspiracy theory. https:// theconversation.com/coronavirus-plandemic-and-theseven-traits-of-conspiratorial-thinking-138483
The infodemic is one we can work to heal. Catholic media professionals, whether working for the Church or any communication service, like their colleagues in every media outlet, have a greater responsibility in a time of pandemic because bad information can kill persons and destroy the notion of truth essential to our trust in each other in a healthy society. In a sense, whenever we are on Facebook or WhatsApp or other services, we are on the job. The same analytical intelligence we use to review content for our publication, radio or TV station or website or in the media education training we impart to others, must be brought to bear on the latest message about COVID-19 from your best friend, colleague, aunt or uncle, or favorite website.
In our own communication about the pandemic, evidence-based content must be the norm. Surprisingly, it seems that the best way to combat disinformation is to flood social media with accurate information (see https://www.youtube. com/watch?v=wT2m3kljcSU&feature=youtu.be).
Most critically, we must establish reliable sources for fact-checking. Some major newspapers and magazines may hew to a certain editorial slant, but with regard to science and medicine, they do work to get it right. There is a recognition that there is science and there is opinion, and the latter is not the former.
There are also numerous fact-checking services and sites. A few follow this article and are limited to English. A little effort will reveal similar sources in other languages. The WHO, for whatever its imperfections, is the best universal source for information on the pandemic. The tools are out there; we simply have to make use of them.
Finally, there is personal commitment. To never forward anything we cannot verify; to be aware of our biases; to be humble in the face of what we don’t know. Above all, to recognize the importance of the hard work of communicating the truth in the midst of a sea of misinformation and disinformation. Professor Kasisomayajula Viswanath of the Harvard School of Public Health stated the need bluntly:
“People are hungry for information, hungry for certitude, and when there is a lack of consensus-oriented information and when everything is being contested in public, that creates confusion among people…’why should I trust anybody?’”
On the pandemic itself, sources given throughout the article and…
On most subjects:
https://reporterslab.org/fact-checking/ (lists fact-checking sites from around the globe)
Image By: Engin akyurt on Unsplash