Fighting the spread of COVID-19 misinformation

February 9, 2021 – From outlandish suggestions that people can beat COVID-19 by drinking bleach to conspiracy theories that vaccines can alter a person’s DNA, the COVID-19 pandemic has made clear the challenges medical misinformation poses in the digital age. In a recent interview, Kasisomayajula “Vish” Viswanath, Lee Kum Kee Professor of Health Communication in the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences at Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health, discussed the threat of misinformation and disinformation and how we can fight it.

Q: Can you give a general assessment of how significant the scope and impact of misinformation and disinformation has been during the COVID-19 pandemic?

A: It’s worse than I could have imagined. In general, we know from our research, and research that others have done, that there is a lot of misinformation out there with regard to health, diseases, and vaccines, especially in the age of the internet. Most of the time, though, misinformation around diseases is not in the spotlight. But what has made misinformation and disinformation about COVID-19 so bad is that it was picked up and spread by political figures, including President Donald Trump. That greatly amplified it and it brought misinformation and disinformation into the mainstream.

Q: Can you clarify the difference between misinformation and disinformation?

A: Misinformation is not having the right factual information. There’s no ill will to it. Disinformation is when a person or groups of people are knowingly spreading false information with the intent to mislead and deceive people. With COVID-19, we’re seeing both.

Q: What role has social media played in this, and are the “Big Tech” companies taking steps in the right direction to address the problem?

A: Social media platforms are one of the most significant abettors to the spread of misinformation and disinformation, and their algorithms have compounded the problem. This was the case well before COVID, and for a long time the companies refused to take responsibility and they did not seriously regulate the flow of misinformation and disinformation.

I am somebody who strongly believes in the First Amendment and I am very leery of anyone regulating free speech, but social media companies should not be absolved of the role they have played in spreading medical misinformation and disinformation.

But I will say that some platforms are tentatively taking steps in the right direction. Instagram has put some restrictions and guideposts around anti-vaccine information and Twitter has started flagging posts. But all of these companies can do better because they have the power and the resources to do better.

Q: How are misinformation and disinformation affecting confidence in COVID-19 vaccines?

A: Let me start by making a factual assertion: If you look at surveys, you see that roughly 50% to 70% of people say they are willing to get vaccinated. That’s the range most surveys show, and there are of course some outliers. That’s good. We should not discount the fact that there is a substantial group of people who are confident in the vaccine and are willing and eager to get it.

But of course, there is a large percentage of people who are hesitant, and I think there are a few reasons why. The COVID-19 vaccines are new and they were developed in record time under a project called “Operation Warp Speed,” which implies that the whole process was being rushed. That could make some people uneasy. There is also a lack of data on how the vaccines will work in the long term. I think these are all reasonable things for people to have concerns about.

However, there have also been active efforts to sow seeds of doubt, and some of these efforts have been led by certain political groups or people of certain political persuasions. We have research under review right now that shows political party identification is one of the most significant predictors of whether a person will follow certain public health guidelines or be willing to get vaccinated.

Q: Do you think President Trump leaving office and being banned from Twitter and Facebook will have a tangible effect on the spread of information not based on facts?

A: I’m going into the realm of speculation here because it is far too early to predict anything. But he is a super spreader of misinformation and disinformation. This is a very unfortunate thing to have to say about a former president of our country, but it is true. He was singularly responsible for mainstreaming COVID-19 disinformation in this country and within our government. President Biden, however, is unlikely to go out there and contradict his public health experts and that will help set the agenda, reframe media coverage, and bring consensus-based scientific information back into the mainstream.

Q: Going forward, what should be done to limit the spread of misinformation and disinformation?

A: We will never eliminate misinformation or disinformation, especially in a free society. But on important topics, such as COVID-19, I think we need to start developing consensus around the facts. A few years ago, I chaired the Vaccine Confidence Working Group as part of the National Vaccine Advisory Committee for the Department of Health and Human Services. We met with journalists and one of the points we made to the journalists was that there’s not two sides of the story when it comes to childhood vaccines.

Another point that needs consideration is that our governments and public health systems are not geared up to properly handle the world of social media. We have to develop a surveillance system—similar to the surveillance systems we have for infectious diseases—where we are tracking misinformation and disinformation. Our agencies need to have the agility to address the spread of misinformation right away by putting out reliable, accurate information from trusted sources to counter the misinformation.

Most importantly, we need social media platforms to take responsibility and improve their efforts to stop the spread of harmful misinformation. One idea is that the companies should have an independent watchdog group monitoring misinformation and taking action. I don’t feel comfortable depending on Mark Zuckerberg to make these types of decisions, but I would feel comfortable depending on a consensus-oriented group with members of different political persuasions.

Chris Sweeney

photo: Kent Dayton