Guest post by Timothy Caulfield, Canada Research Chair in Health Law and Policy, a Professor in the Faculty of Law and the School of Public Health, and Research Director of the Health Law Institute at the University of Alberta
Studies have shown that communicating the scientific consensus on a topic can be a helpful strategy in the fight against misinformation. For example, a 2015 study found that “emphasizing the medical consensus about (childhood) vaccine safety is likely to be an effective pro-vaccine message.” And the strategy has been found to work, at least to some degree, for other controversial issues, such as the science of climate change. This approach is especially effective if it is utilized by trusted voices, such as healthcare professionals, scientific experts and public health authorities.
But what happens when both the science is in constant flux and trust in relevant institutions is eroding? What happens when the scientific consensus seems to be quickly evolving and some of the relevant science is less-than robust, as it is with the current pandemic?
In such times it is important to be explicit about the ambiguities of the evidence. Indeed, there is some evidence that being transparent about uncertainties can actually heighten credibility, trust and public understanding. Perhaps more importantly, we should view these situations of uncertainty as an opportunity to reflect on the nature of the scientific process.
We need to remind others (and ourselves!) that “science” is not an immutable list of facts. It isn’t an institution or, even, a particular authoritative expert. It is a process. It is uncertain. And as such, the conclusions and recommendations that are informed by science will (and should!) change and evolve.
When science-informed decision makers change their mind due to new evidence, they aren’t flip-flopping, they’re doing their job!
This was written to accompany the Check First, Share After campaign MediaSmarts created in 2020 to address misinformation related to COVID-19. For more resources on how to find accurate information online check out Break the Fake.
Researchers, academics and journalists across the globe are working hard to unpack the complicated issue of misinformation, especially as it relates to COVID-19. We’ve compiled the following articles for further reading on the subject, from the reasons why misinformation about the virus spreads, to how best to respond to false information about COVID-19.
Verifying health information
“I’m a professor of chemistry, have a Ph.D. and conduct my own scientific research, yet when consuming media, even I frequently need to ask myself: ‘Is this science or is it fiction?’”
“‘Our understanding oscillates at first, but converges on an answer,’ says Natalie Dean, a statistician at the University of Florida. ‘That’s the normal scientific process, but it looks jarring to people who aren’t used to it.’”
“‘We’ve faced pandemics before,” said Graham Brookie, who directs the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab. “We haven’t faced a pandemic at a time when humans are as connected and have as much access to information as they do now.’”
“This post provides a short overview of this research with seven highlights that can help us understand how people navigate information (and misinformation) and what role journalism and news can play in a crisis like the current pandemic.”
“Different groups with different motives are exploiting the COVID-19 pandemic in different ways.”
Communicating good information
“Taking a multi-pronged approach to improving and maintaining uptake will be essential: reducing mistrust in the safety and efficacy of vaccines, improving awareness of the value of vaccines, and improving access to vaccines.”
“Social norms are powerful, and ideas are contagious — meaning we each can play a role in spreading the word.“
“If you’re thinking about discussing vaccines with friends and family, or on social media, it helps to have an understanding of some of the varied reasons people may be hesitant about vaccines.”
“Reporters who cover this beat learn to evaluate evidence, decipher jargon and statistics, find reliable experts, and humanize intimidating stories. Here are some tips to keep in mind.”
“The seductively simple directive to be “accurate,” which lies at the heart of science communication, obscures the reality that accuracy is a tenuous notion during a crisis such as this, in which uncertainty reigns.”
“No one wants to spread bad information—but for non-scientists, it can be hard to distinguish facts from rumors.”
“Simply spewing scientific facts from a soapbox isn’t enough: research shows that it’s more important to start a dialogue.”
“To help influencers channel this power to fight COVID-19, we researched and tested the best messaging tactics for encouraging compliance with public health guidelines.”
Responding to bad information
“It’s not only that we trust information from knowledgeable people who are close to us but that those in our lives can find opportune moments to explain why preventive behaviors are important to them and why they trust the science that says those actions reduce the spread of the virus.”
“You are already an influential source of information for the people closest to you. Even if they vehemently disagree with you, your family and friends likely pay more attention to you, and think more highly of you, than do people whom you’ve never met.”
“Older people are ‘particularly targeted for misinformation’ because they tend to have more money, more civic engagement, more free time, and less experience with technology.”
“A majority of Americans agree that correction is important: 68 percent agree people should respond when they see someone sharing misinformation, and 67 percent agree that addressing misinformation on social media is everyone’s responsibility.”
“If you debunk a rumor too early, you can give it oxygen. If you leave the debunk too late, the falsehood and conspiracy takes hold, and it’s almost impossible to slow down its spread or to convince people it’s wrong.”
“While the data remains complex and, at times, contradictory, there is little doubt that efforts to correct misinformation are worthwhile. In fact, fighting the spread of misinformation should be viewed as vitally important health and science policy priority.”
“This brief addresses how the public health sector, along with a coalition of civil servants, media workers, technology companies, and civil society organizations, must understand and respond to the problem of medical media manipulation, specifically how it spreads online.”