Today we are reprinting an editorial originally published in October. Unfortunately, disinformation remains rampant as evidenced by the experience of an author of a 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 where the infant’s death was blamed wrongly on the mother having been vaccinated against COVID-19 during her pregnancy. We humans are social creatures, 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 as we continue to live with the pandemic, we are still exposed to an infodemic of at times misleading, unreliable and even malicious disinformation.
All of us benefit by living in a world where, decades ago, vaccine mandates eliminated smallpox and polio. However, some parents who oppose mask requirements and vaccine recommendations have confronted school boards. As in the past, these measures are legal and based on widely recognized guidelines set by doctors and public health agencies. It is remarkable that most of the outspoken parents never voiced complaints about vaccinating their own children for measles, mumps, chicken pox, diphtheria, pertussis and whooping cough, as required for school enrollment.
It’s as if a vast canyon opened up between the vaxxers and the anti-mask, anti-vaxxers. How could this new virus separate us into two seemingly irreconcilable factions?
In difficult and uncertain times such as the COVID-19 pandemic, our deepest fears and beliefs can powerfully influence how we see the world. Think of the commonly accepted notion that “seeing is believing.” When we see evidence that something is factually accurate, it is OK to believe that it is true. The counter argument is that “we see what we believe.” This is to say that our beliefs influence what information we feel like trusting. We can be left confused about the evidence, and more concerningly, we may try to force the information that we do have about COVID-19 to fit our beliefs. This opens up the possibility of avoiding vaccination and rejecting public health measures like masking and social distancing.
We know that not everything we find in social media is accurate. If inaccuracies are shared innocently without being carefully documented or verified, it is called misinformation. If the inaccuracies are spread with deliberate intentions to deceive, this is called disinformation. Such disinformation can come wrapped up in a conspiracy theory involving villains and scapegoats, which is especially dangerous because it has the potential to fuel discrimination and justify hate crimes. For those who fall down such a rabbit hole of distrust and suspicion, efforts by others to help them get out can be futile. Anyone who tries is seen as being part of the conspiracy.
What can be done to protect us from false COVID-19 information? Tara Kirk Sell, a senior scholar 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 you can be the most prepared or have a great vaccine, but none of that can work if people aren’t receptive.” She proposes cooperative outreach involving not only health professionals, but social media platforms and news media.
How can we identify and deal with false or uncertain information found online? Professor Sell and others give this advice:
• Don’t spread falsehoods by sharing, repeating or retweeting them, even with a correction! If it’s from someone you know, reach out to them privately.
• Limit your own engagement if you don’t 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 false information:
• Fact check using web-based tools that can provide unbiased assessment of source credibility such as snopes.org or politifact.com.
• Cross reference questionable statements with the best information available.
• 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 family doctors and health care providers are dependable sources who can help us sort out complicated medical issues. Accurate information can keep us all healthy and safe.
Ross Hemmendinger is a registered nurse and a former teacher