Lies and conspiracy theories about pandemics are nothing new.
In 1889, an American newspaper reported that electric light was the cause of that season’s flu pandemic, arguing towns with access to electricity experienced more outbreaks. During the 1918 pandemic, rumours flew that the flu was caused by aspirin and spread by German submarines.
What has changed, of course, is the speed with which misinformation spreads online and on social media, resulting in what has been termed an “infodemic.”
According to Statistics Canada, during the first few months of the COVID pandemic, nearly all Canadians saw COVID-19 misinformation online. Disconcertingly, about half of Canadians shared COVID information without knowing whether it was accurate.
A World Health Organization review of published studies found that as many as 51 percent of all social media posts on vaccines were inaccurate or misleading. Studies also show that false information spreads faster than true information, and fake news that activates our emotions is more believable.
The spread of misinformation has not only negatively affected COVID health outcomes and eroded public trust in government institutions. It has also contributed to a disturbing resurgence of infectious diseases that were previously eliminated or eradicated, such as measles and polio.
With the goal of reducing the global spread of misinformation, Impact Canada is working with the OECD and France’s DITP to share best practices. Most recently, Impact Canada initiated a study on how to create the kind of “friction” necessary to slow down the sharing of misinformation online. This randomized controlled trial was embedded in the longitudinal COVID-19 Snapshot Monitoring Study COSMO Canada, which has provided the federal government with important data to make evidence-based decisions throughout the pandemic.
In the misinformation study, they assessed 1,872 people across Canada to see how two separate interventions would affect participants’ likelihood of sharing 14 different true and false headlines about COVID-19.
One intervention shifted users’ attention to accuracy by asking them to evaluate a neutral, non-COVID statement first. In the second, participants were provided with a list of five digital media literacy tips, including “investigate the source, “look at other reports” and “watch for unusual formatting.” Both groups were then exposed to the 14 COVID-related headlines and asked how likely they were to share them.
The study found that the five digital media literacy tips reduced false headline sharing 3.5 times more than the accuracy prompt, resulting in a 21 percent decrease in intentions to share fake news online compared to the control group.
Impact Canada’s Dr. Lauryn Conway is Lead of Behavioural Science at the Impact and Innovation Unit within the Privy Council Office. In the study’s launch event, she said, “Obviously, misinformation is a very multi-pronged issue… [and] there are realities about online harms that require much more structural types of initiatives at the level of platforms or regulations. A comprehensive policy response to misinformation would involve a lot of different levers, one of which is a recognition there is value in empowering users … in ways that preserve their autonomy, but also foster better digital competencies. It’s awesome to have this experiential evidence that’s been generated in a Canadian context that can inform decision-making going forward.”
ScienceUpFirst, an initiative of the Canadian Association of Science Centres, is another Canadian leader in the fight against health misinformation. The non-profit organization was launched in the summer of 2020 by Senator Dr. Stan Kutcher and Dr. Timothy Caulfield, Canada Research Chair in Health Law and Policy, to amplify accurate information about COVID-19. It is now a funded initiative of the Canadian Association of Science Centres, bringing together researchers, health care experts and science communicators to share the best available science about a range of health topics.
ScienceUpFirst recently announced they are now expanding their approach by going straight to the source of misinformation — social media communities — by working with some of Canada’s best-known online content creators.
According to Magda Byma, Director of ScienceUpFirst, “We know we need to engage new audiences. By connecting with influencers across Canada, we normalize the conversation around misinformation, and make it relatable to people’s everyday life. It is a great way of reaching people with content they might otherwise find confusing or difficult.”
This challenge was highlighted at last fall's Canadian Science Policy Conference, where a panel discussion explored the role of social media influence. Entitled "Science for all? What the pandemic and digital shift have taught us about the social positioning of science and tech (and how to fix it)", participants considered how policy deliberations around science and technology are often kept at a remove from more highly publicized matters affecting society, equity, and community.
According to panelist Dr. Krishana Sankar, a Science Advisor for ScienceUpFirst, the separation between STEM and society can foster misinformation. She and her team are working with community groups to address this problem. For example, they’re supporting a South Asian community group using games to spark discussions about COVID and vaccines, and an Indigenous community group in Manitoba leading vaccine Q&A town halls.
Sankar’s team recently launched a flow-through grant program to empower organizations that already have deep relationships with equity-deserving communities. They are also working with community partners to translate ScienceUpFirst content into the languages of their communities, and leading workshops for community leaders about tackling misinformation, so they can deliver similar workshops in their own communities.
“Misinformation and the infodemic sparked by the pandemic is far from over,” says Sankar. “As algorithms change and new platforms emerge, we’ll need to adapt to debunk misinformation and share the best available science. We want to be a trusted source of information, not just for Canadians online, but also for the educators and researchers who wish to join us in the important work of science communications.”