At least 2,800 Canadian lives lost to COVID-19 could have been spared, tens of thousands hospitalizations could have been prevented and $300 million in hospital costs might have been saved if not for the insidious spread of misinformation, according to a new report.
The report, released Thursday by the Council of Canadian Academies (CCA) – an independent science research organization – examines the socioeconomic impacts of science and health misinformation and how it affected Canadians’ behaviour during two waves of COVID-19 between March and November 2021.
It found misinformation – defined as false or misleading information shared intentionally or unintentionally – contributed to vaccine hesitancy for an estimated 2.3 million Canadians.
Some of these Canadians believed COVID-19 to be a “hoax” or that it was “exaggerated,” while others believed vaccines caused many problems that are being “covered up,” the report said.
If all of these vaccine-hesitant Canadians had chosen to be vaccinated against the virus, the report estimates there would have been at least 2,800 fewer deaths, 13,000 fewer hospitalizations, including 3,500 fewer ICU admissions, 198,000 fewer cases of COVID-19 in Canada and $300 million in hospital expenses saved.
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These estimates are considered to be conservative, the report adds, as they do not capture other direct health-care costs, such as physician pay, nor does it capture broader societal costs like lost productivity or wages and the strains placed on Canada’s health-care system.
Alex Himelfarb, a former diplomat who served as chair of the panel of 13 experts created by the CCA to conduct this study, says while misinformation and deception are not new, Canada has become more vulnerable to its consequences.
“The personal consequences are relatively easy to document: hospitalizations, deaths and financial costs. The collective costs are more difficult to quantify but no less important to public health, the public purse, the social fabric and the planet,” he said in the report.
“We are none of us immune to misinformation and its consequences, though the most vulnerable, as always, bear the greatest costs.”
How is health misinformation spread?
The expert panel found that science and health misinformation is produced and disseminated in a wide variety of ways and for many reasons.
Some sources of misinformation or people spreading this false data may simply be unaware or distrustful of scientific consensus on the virus or vaccines, while others actively seek to undermine trust, the report said.
Whatever the intent, the proliferation of social media platforms and private messaging apps have played a major role in facilitating and accelerating the spread of misinformation in Canada, as it increases the ability for anyone to create and post content, the report said.
In addition, while a number of social media companies are taking some steps to fight misinformation, economic incentives built into their algorithms drive the creation and spread of false narratives, the report said.
“Social media companies primarily generate revenues by selling advertising space, the value of which is driven by users’ engagement on the platform,” it said.
“Misinformation created to target audiences on social media can generate revenue for both the creators and the platforms themselves. Additional factors, such as the use of bots and recommendation algorithms on social media, have been shown to contribute to the creation and spread of misinformation online.”
Oversimplified or sensational journalism and scientific and medical research that use questionable methodologies can also play a role in disseminating false information, the report adds.
How can we fight misinformation?
To combat misinformation, the report’s authors suggest a number of strategies and techniques to improve trust, quality and uptake of legitimate scientific information.
These strategies include independent fact-checking and clearly labelling online misinformation; better public education about the techniques used to spread mis- and disinformation; and improved access to trusted academic research.
The report also suggests more effective science communication is needed, including carefully selecting appropriate messengers and mediums to deliver accurate and clear information that can reach diverse audiences.
“The task of confronting misinformation and mitigating its impacts can feel overwhelming and impossible, but we are not in a position to turn away,” the report states.
“The future health and well-being of people in Canada, and around the world, depend on our recognizing and responding to science and health misinformation today.”
A draft of the 131-page report, which was commissioned and funded by the federal government, was peer-reviewed by a multidisciplinary group of 11 additional experts, and many of their suggestions were incorporated into the report.