Today, we reprint a leader that was originally published in October. Unfortunately, disinformation remains widespread, as evidenced by the experience of an author of an May 11 op-ed in the New York Times. In this op-ed, a couple described how their grief when their 3-month-old baby died last year was co-opted by social media, in which the infant’s death was erroneously blamed for the mother being vaccinated against COVID-19 during her pregnancy. We humans are social beings, and so during the COVID-19 pandemic, it is not surprising that many of us have turned more than ever to television, the Internet, and social media. An unfortunate consequence is that while we continue to live with the pandemic, we are still exposed to an infodemia of at times misleading, unreliable and even malicious disinformation.
We all benefit from living in a world where vaccine mandates decades ago eliminated smallpox and polio. However, some parents who oppose mask requirements and vaccine recommendations have confronted school boards. As before, these measures are legal and based on widely recognized guidelines set by doctors and public health authorities. It is noteworthy that most of the outspoken parents have never expressed complaints about vaccinating their own children for measles, mumps, chickenpox, diphtheria, pertussis and pertussis as required to be enrolled in school.
It is as if a great gulf opened up between the waxes and the anti-masks, the anti-waxes. How could this new virus separate us into two seemingly incompatible fractions?
In difficult and uncertain times like the COVID-19 pandemic, our deepest fears and beliefs can greatly affect how we see the world. Think of the widely accepted view that “to see is to believe.” When we see evidence that something is factually correct, it is OK to believe that it is true. The counter-argument is that “We see what we think.” This means that our beliefs affect what information we want to trust. We may become confused by the evidence, and more worryingly, we may try to force the information we have about COVID-19 to fit our beliefs. This opens up the possibility of avoiding vaccination and rejecting public health measures such as masking and social distancing.
We know that not everything we find on social media is correct. If inaccuracies are shared innocently without being carefully documented or verified, it is called misinformation. If the inaccuracies are spread with conscious intentions to deceive, this is called disinformation. Such misinformation can be wrapped up in a conspiracy theory involving villains and scapegoats, which is particularly dangerous because it has the potential to fuel discrimination and justify hate crimes. For those who fall into such a rabbit hole of mistrust and suspicion, the efforts of others to help them get out may be in vain. Anyone who attempts is considered to be part of the conspiracy.
What can be done to protect us from false COVID-19 information? Tara Kirk Sell, senior researcher at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, has presented a comprehensive plan for improving health risk communication. She writes, “I have always felt that risk communication is disproportionately neglected when it comes to preparing for public health emergencies. It is clear that one can be the most prepared or have a good vaccine, but none of it can work if people are not susceptible. ” She suggests collaborations involving not only health professionals but social media platforms and news media.
How can we identify and handle false or uncertain information found online? Professor Sell and others give this advice:
• Do not spread lies by sharing, repeating or retweeting them, even with a correction! If it is from someone you know, contact them privately.
• Limit your own commitment if you do not know the source or whether it is legitimate.
• Report it to social media companies.
• Consider providing reliable information in your own separate post.
Here are ways to check for fake information:
• Fact check using web-based tools that can provide an impartial assessment of the source’s credibility such as snopes.org or politifact.com.
• Cross-references questionable statements with the best available information.
• Think twice about messages that seem to appeal to emotions.
• Consider whether the source shows the ability and humility to change over time when presented with new evidence.
Who can we trust? For reliable information, our own GPs and healthcare providers are reliable sources that can help us solve complicated medical problems. Accurate information can keep us all healthy and secure.
Ross Hemmendinger is a trained nurse and former teacher