Misinformation: Yep, still a problem

Bill Gates put microchips in the COVID vaccines! 5G technology caused the pandemic! Ivermectin is a miracle drug, and it is being purposely withheld! The vaccines are killing thousands, increasing infertility, and altering our genes! And they will make you magnetic! You must detox the vaccine from your body using bleach or snake venom!

Let’s not forget. This is the kind of harmful nonsense that has circulated over the past few years. But as the pandemic crisis begins to fade, our memories of what happened in our very recent past are increasingly viewed through an ideological, and deeply polarizing, lens. We are seeing a strange revisionist spin on the issue of misinformation. As if there was no harm done. Actions to fight misinformation are cast as undemocratic attempts to the silence and censor reasonable points of view.

The real let’s-not-forget reality? Misinformation has done and is continuing to do serious harm. It is killing us.

To cite just one corrosive example of bunk, the myth that the COVID-19 vaccines increase infertility – misinformation that was pushed by social media influencers, celebrity athletes, renowned anti-vaccine advocates and high-profile physicians – has caused enduring damage. Despite the fact there has never been any evidence to support this fearmongering claim – on the contrary, studies have consistently shown the safety and benefits of vaccines, including during pregnancy – a 2022 survey found that 44 per cent of Americans are unsure if the COVID vaccines cause infertility. No surprise, research has also found that this misinformation-fueled misperception is linked to increased vaccine hesitancy. And, perhaps most worrisome, this hesitancy is spilling over to other vaccines – a trend that could have global implications.

Robert Califf, the Food and Drug Administration commissioner, went so far as to say that he believes that the embrace of misinformation has contributed to the erosion of life expectancy in the U.S. (which is at a 25-year low) and is a “leading cause of death.”

Many studies and academic reports, including a 2023 analysis by the Council of Canadian Academies (which I co-authored), have concluded that health misinformation also has profound and adverse social, psychological and economic impacts. In general, both the public and health-care professionals agree. A March 2023 survey of more than 800 U.S. physicians found that 92 per cent believe that vaccine misinformation is somewhat or a very large problem. A 2023 survey by Ekos Research found that, in Canadas, 89 per cent feel misinformation is a very serious (75 per cent) or somewhat serious (14 per cent) problem. And a 2022 international survey of almost 25,000 people in 19 countries found that 95 per cent see the spread of misinformation as a major (70 per cent) or minor (24 per cent) threat to the world, on par with climate change.

How many voices have been silenced in the fight against misinformation? This, of course, depends on your definition of “silenced.” But if it refers to formal action by a regulator, the reality is that, despite many calls for action (including pleas from the U.S. Federation of State Medical Boards and several provincial Colleges of Physicians and Surgeons), relatively few physicians have been officially reprimanded by their licensing authorities. And some of the most notorious spreaders of harmful lies – such as Sherry “Vaccines Will Make You Magnetic” Tenpenny – have, to date, avoided disciplinary action. In both Canada and the United States, when sanctions have been handed out, it was almost always for misinformation that was extreme.

Were alternative perspectives about COVID vaccines really removed from the marketplace of ideas? Hardly.

Were alternative perspectives about COVID and the vaccines really removed from the marketplace of ideas? Hardly. Allegedly silenced narratives were frequently featured on the world’s most popular podcast and on the highest-rated cable news show. They were amplified by both mainstream and alternative social media platforms that have rewards systems (those likes, shares, and follows) incentivizing the sharing of misinformation. Indeed, most of the available research has demonstrated again and again that misinformation spreads faster and further than the truth. By leveraging our cognitive biases – including the power of anecdotes and the negativity bias – harmful misinformation has flooded our information ecosystem.

Indeed, research I’ve conducted with colleagues at the University of Alberta has found that false balance – that is, a bothsidesism that misrepresents the weight of evidence and scientific consensus – is common in popular culture. This can have an adverse impact on beliefs and health actions, public discourse and policy action.

Most in the public recognize that the harms caused by misinformation justify a strong policy response. Fighting misinformation is a paramount priority for the public. For example, a 2023 study found that “most U.S. citizens preferred quashing harmful misinformation over protecting free speech.” And most physicians say they believe in “accountability and discipline for physicians who spread misinformation.” Seventy per cent of physicians say their colleagues should temporarily lose their licence after repeatedly spreading misinformation.

There is no doubt that some of the public-health communication, especially early in the pandemic, was, um, less than ideal. It was, at times, too dogmatic and didn’t reflect the uncertain and evolving nature of the relevant science. Indeed, as we’ve seen with the recent mask and “lab leak” debates, poor science communication and a lack of transparency can, understandably, erode public confidence and be weaponized by those wishing to ferment further distrust and polarization. We need to do better.

But we shouldn’t let past missteps be used to minimize or distract us from the urgent need to counter misinformation. And we shouldn’t let the “silencing” rhetoric mischaracterize the effort. Most of the policies suggested to fight misinformation do not involve overt efforts to silence or censor or cancel. On the contrary. Prebunking, debunking, sharing science-informed creative content and providing citizens with critical thinking skills are all strategies that utilize the marketplace of ideas as a way forward. More pointed efforts – including holding regulated health professionals to a legal standard of care and deplatforming the most egregious offenders – should, in general, be tools of last resort and deployed only when clear rules have been broken and in a manner that appropriately and transparently balances the relevant rights, harms and benefits.

There are huge challenges ahead. The social media platforms, arguably the most important players in the spread of misinformation, must be part of the solution. But, to date, there is little reason to be optimistic about near-future and meaningful change to their content moderation or bunk-pushing algorithms. And at the margins, it can be difficult to define misinformation – especially now that the term is being coopted, like “fake news” before it, by those who benefit from its dissemination.

But let’s not underplay the profound harm caused by misinformation. And let’s not let misinformation about misinformation distract from the reality that much of the content that has done serious harm is clearly and unequivocally total BS. As noted in a 2022 editorial in the New England Journal of Medicine on this point: “There aren’t always right answers, but some answers are clearly wrong.”

The comments section is closed.

  • B says:

    Do you take accountability for your own misinformation? How many times have you been wrong and ignored it? The medical community caused this so stop pretending they are somehow now the victims

  • Dr. Rob Murray [DDS retired] says:

    Deeply Institutionalized Disinformation, Discrimination and the Ignored Lyme and TBD Epidemic in Canada

    What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander as demonstrated by infectious disease doctors acting as lobbyists for industry in how the epidemic of Lyme and tick-borne diseases [TBDs] are being downplayed and ignored by PHAC. No new made-in-Canada Lyme disease guidelines were produced as mandated by Parliament in the 2014 Act for a Conference to Develop a Federal Framework on Lyme Disease. Unnamed officials went behind closed doors and after 9 months, without collaboration or transparency produced a Framework that ceded authority and money back to the same individuals responsible for the problem. The Framework didn’t follow the Conference Summary Report and is a travesty designed to convince politicians that they were in good hands.

    Ticks are responsible for 95% of vector-borne diseases in Canada, 82% of which are Lyme. Dr. Njoo says that health is a provincial matter and provinces can do as they please. He didn’t mention that he will maintain control of research dollars and be the gatekeeper with the flawed Lyme test that misses a third of those that truly do have the disease. All this because the long-term disability insurance industry doesn’t want to underwrite the cost of treating complex disseminated [chronic] Lyme disease.

    Before they knew what they were dealing with authorities attempted to model the disease and put it into a box. They developed a test and then defined the disease by the tests and not the symptoms. They are still studying the same model and not the disease. Less than half of those with Lyme recall being bitten and less than half get an identifiable rash. Many don’t experience a flu-like illness. Untreated and under-treated Lyme can go on to cause neuroborreliosis and Alzheimer’s. Canada has one of the world’s highest rates of MS and lowest rates of Lyme. In many cases the diseases not only look identical [e.g. on an MRI] but in fact are the same caused by Borrelia burgdorferi, the agent responsible for Lyme. Medical specialists are siloed and It just depends what lens the specialist is using.

    Industry has learned it can control medicine if it can control the guidelines [crib sheets]. The guidelines used in Canada limit treatment to 10 days with a single bacteriostatic agent despite the stage of the disease. Borrelia responsible for Lyme are the Einstein of Bacteria and have many sophisticated survival strategies and can easily survive a brief round of antibiotics in biofilm and by producing long-lived antibiotic tolerant persister cells.

    Lyme is the infectious disease equivalent of cancer. PHAC has prioritized the preservation of the antibiotic supply over returning Canadians to health. It’s eminence over evidence.

    How many more Canadians must lose their health, homes, livelihoods and lives due to a treatable disease? It’s the test that got us into all this trouble and it must be scrapped.

    Medicine is self-regulating but that only works if everyone is behaving altruistically. It’s time for selective civilian oversight. Long-COVID has shaken physicians out of their comfort zone and hopefully they will take a closer look at what they have been taught and their own biases when dealing with those suffering from invisible diseases.

  • Adelaide, Science Teacher says:

    It is highly understandable that people are misinformed. Good Science has lost its foothold, and people can’t see through the quagmire of studies passing as unbiased. Even reputable journals are publishing poorly done studies. Researchers rely heavily on corporate funding, and cherry-picked data is rampant. There is no financial incentive for drug companies to fund studies on the health of the unvaccinated population. With skewed statistics, how is anyone to know the facts? We need counter views to fuel doubt and inspire conversation. Mainstream media has already done a fantastic job of swaying our opinion, backed by politicians – not science. And doctors should never be muzzled.

  • Colton Coombs OMS II says:

    On the topic of misinformation on the internet when it comes to medicine is huge. Common false or fancible facts are posted on social media which spreads like wildfire. One negative comment that populates and spreads on social media can create harm and distrust in the medical care system. For example, the vaccination causing autism, was disproven but the harm is still felt. To fix that, positive and true medical media must work 10-fold to correct the public eye. Another source of medical misinformation often comes from all knowing google. People google their symptoms and more times than not general internet searches come to very negative results like cancer and short life expectancy. This is hard for healthcare providers to deal with patents that come in with false knowledge. Making proper health and medicine knowledge should be more available and easier to access. Data bases like PubMed or UpToDate should be more advertised and made inviting for the general nonmedical public. If that happens there will be an increase of wealth of knowledge that will disprove and help resolve misinformation. Making them more user-friendly would go a long way towards increasing medical information availability. With the younger generations being continually online, having better online information is key. Misinformation will never go away but proper sources and taking social media with a grain of salt can help people make proper medical decisions.

  • Jean Marc Benoit says:

    Congratulations for your stalwart efforts in countering extreme misinformation, such as “Gates put microchips in the COVID vaccines! 5G technology caused the pandemic! Ivermectin is a miracle drug, and it is being purposely withheld! The vaccines are killing thousands, increasing infertility, and altering our genes! And they will make you magnetic! You must detox the vaccine from your body using bleach or snake venom!” which you outline in your first paragraph.
    I must take issue with the characterization of pathologist Dr Ryan Cole’s work as being “extreme” in your 7th paragraph. To my knowledge, Dr. Cole’s primary emphasis throughout Covid has been on the importance of doing histopathology for spike protein and nucleocapsid protein when evaluating deaths potentially associated with Covid vaccines. This is a long way from bleach and snake venom.
    My concern overall, which I shared with your colleague in the production of the misinformation report “Fault Lines,” which you reference in your 6th paragraph, is that “misinformation” is an imprecise concept, which has neither a medical nor legal definition, and which is being applied with a broad brush. For example, the “Fault Lines” report concluded that masks were effective in preventing Covid transmission, based on “scientific consensus” – overlooking the most definitive meta-analysis on the matter, produced by the Cochrane Collaboration.
    Meanwhile, the cloud of the term “misinformation” is made to stretch all the way from people who believe that vaccines make you magnetic to those who rightly question the efficacy of masks for excluding a virus that spreads via aerosol transmission.
    Once again, congratulations for stalwart efforts.


Timothy Caulfield


Timothy Caulfield is an author and Canada Research Chair in Health Law and Policy, University of Alberta.

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