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.”