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Edmonton’s Caulfield brothers battle COVID-19 misinformation with art, science

A selection of art from the Caulfield project.
A selection of art from the Caulfield project. Eric Beck/Global News

Two Edmonton brothers who are also prominent academics are combining science and art to battle misinformation amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Sean and Timothy Caulfield’s latest project in the fight against fake news invites people to take a pause and think, before sharing.

Read more: University of Alberta prof’s show debunking health myths picked up by Netflix

The brothers said it’s part of a broader project to combat misinformation.

“We really want to come at this issue from every angle we possibly can,” Timothy said. “That includes using creative communication strategies like graphic art and fine art.”

The images feature a megaphone spewing liquid onto a grey canvas, or a pair of lungs with a looming black funnel above them. You can find the Caulfield brothers’ work in an online exhibition here. Sean said the work will eventually be shown in galleries, starting with upstate New York in January.

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The duo believes having an audience pause to think about a piece of abstract art is important.

“Art is often kind of complex. It makes people slow down. That’s one of the things we need to do with misinformation. We need to think in a more nuanced way,” Sean said. “Art has a role in helping people do that.”

Read more: Nearly half of Canadians can’t tell coronavirus fact from conspiracy theory: survey

Timothy, who is the Canada research chair in health law and policy at the University of Alberta, said misinformation can have serious consequences.

“It’s causing death,” he said. “It’s causing financial loss, it’s having an adverse impact on health and science policy. It’s adding to a chaotic information environment.”

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Sean, centennial professor in the Department of Art and Design at the University of Alberta, said his work, paired with hashtags #ThinkAccuracy or #SuperSpreader, leave much open for interpretation.

Read more: Coronavirus conspiracies pushed by Russia, amplified by Chinese officials: experts

“Lots of things can come up [when viewing the art]. There are issues around anxiety, isolation…these are complex and emotional things that are hard to articulate,” Sean said. “Art can also play a role in that.”

Timothy said there is empirical evidence that a moment of pause, like one given by art, can help combat misinformation.

“If we can get people to stop and think about accuracy, we can have a measurable impact on the spread of misinformation,” he said. “We’re using these images to illustrate some of the empirical and policy work we’re doing.”

The brothers are both part of the Royal Society Canada Task Force on COVID-19, where Sean’s art will be circulated.

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“I love working with my brother. It’s really rewarding,” Timothy said. “And most people love the project. It’s been fantastic.”