As the World Health Organization said in February, COVID-19 is more than just a pandemic — it’s an “infodemic,” one that has made it “hard for people to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance when they need it.”
Both online and offline, experts agree misinformation is spreading rapidly. But the burning question — “How do you combat it?” — is still burning.
“Just like we still don’t know how to treat COVID-19, we still don’t know the best approach to fighting misinformation and conspiracy theories around this topic,” said Anatoliy Gruzd, an associate professor and Canada Research Chair in privacy-preserving technologies at Ryerson University.
He said one thing is for sure: “interdisciplinary collaboration” is needed, but even then, “there’s no single-bullet answer.”
Social media shifts
With no effective weapon against the virus, fear and uncertainty have grown.
The subject of the fear ultimately fuelling the misinformation has shifted as the pandemic months have passed, said Gruzd.
In March, unfounded theories about diagnostics, prevention and cures were “very popular,” he said. By May, there had been a spike in claims related to specific countries and how the governments responded to the virus.
There are also claims trying to diminish the severity of the virus and claims about the origins of it. Both of those have “reappeared” throughout the past five months, said Gruzd, because “the virus spread around the world at different periods of time.”
“They get reintroduced,” he said. “It’s a lifecycle of false information circulating on the internet.”
Some of the claims bear more risk — like the touting of unproven drugs and anti-mask-wearing rhetoric. It’s drawn the ire of Canada’s chief public health officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, who on Tuesday said the swirling misinformation about the virus can be “distracting and harmful.”
Tam said the path to a solution includes individual actions.
“When information comes to us, we need to critically evaluate, check against credible sources and not share further if there’s any doubt as to its validity,” she said.
Layers of protection
While individuals have a role to play, social media ultimately is at the crux of this, experts say.
A recent McGill University study found the more a person relies on social media to learn about the pandemic, the more likely they are to be exposed to misinformation, believe it and ultimately defy public health principles and policies. However, only about 16 per cent of Canadians said they use social media as their primary source of information on the virus.
Gruzd, whose team runs the COVID19MisInfo Portal, recently examined a similar subject. He said their survey found the majority of Canadians trust information on COVID-19 from official sources, like the public service and government ministries, rather than from political parties or family and friends.
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“That’s great news because it suggests that the government can reach Canadians with credible information about how they can protect themselves and others,” he said.
“But we also know Canadians are one of the most connected people in the world. Our data shows 94 per cent of online Canadians have social media accounts. About 56 per cent reported they’d encountered some form of misinformation. So that can be dangerous.”
Companies like Twitter, Facebook and Google have upped fact-checking, removing and labelling videos and other posts that spread misinformation about COVID-19. Facebook and Google have committed to providing monthly reports about the spread of misinformation on their sites, and Twitter regularly updates its coronavirus misinformation blog.
Search engines and social media platforms have also started including links to credible sources on pages about COVID-19, often linking to Health Canada information on the topic.
But these should not be relied on alone, Gruzd said.
“While it’s an important measure, we’re realizing people don’t always pay attention to those links or disclaimers,” he said.
It’s conspiracy theories that fall into a grey area, he said.
“Quite often they’re not framed as a claim about cures or government actions, it’s a rhetorical question,” he said. “It makes it hard to fact-check.”
He pointed to the recent video of a doctor falsely claiming hydroxychloroquine is a “cure” for COVID-19 — which it is not. The video spread rapidly online before being pulled by social media platforms. It was even tweeted by U.S. President Donald Trump and his son, whose account was temporarily suspended by Twitter for sharing the video.
“(The video) was very well organized, it was a high-quality press conference with medical professionals in white gowns saying there’s a cure. As the average person, why wouldn’t you believe that?” he said.
“That’s where it’s critical to have a fact-checking strategy.”
What is Canada doing?
Health Canada has the lead on monitoring for misinformation on the coronavirus.
The agency said the work to “analyze and address possible misinformation and disinformation campaigns” is ongoing and that “accurate, timely and authoritative information” is available through a variety of means, including regular press conferences by the prime minister and health officials. In its statement to Global News, the agency did not provide any details.
Canada already has strong measures to combat misleading advertising and labelling of products, as well as regulations on how health products are advertised. Health Canada says it sends compliance letters to companies it finds making false or questionable claims about the virus.
The Communications Security Establishment’s Cyber Centre is focused on cybercrime related to the virus, combating “malicious cyber actors and fraudulent sites that might try to take advantage of Canadians,” a spokesperson said in a statement.
In April, the federal government also invested $3 million to help combat false and misleading information about COVID-19. It was divvied up among programs and projects that aim to come up with ways to counter the misinformation by “helping Canadians become more resilient and think critically.”
Criminalizing misinformation related to COVID-19 was once on the table, but never saw the light of day.
Still, there’s no “one-size-fits-all” approach to COVID-19 misinformation or any misinformation at this point, said Gruzd.
“It’s likely going to be a set of measures. We’re trying to validate and check their effectiveness,” he said.
Until then, messaging is where improvements could be made, Gruzd believes.
“I think right now it’s important for health experts to emphasize that recommendations are based on recent evidence, that it may change over time and that it’s specific for people in a certain location. Many Canadians don’t understand why certain regions require masks and why certain places are still locked down and why others don’t,” he said.
“In this new environment of uncertainty and mixed messaging, that’s where misinformation and conspiracy theories strike.”