Digital campaign aims to counter COVID-19 conspiracies, misinformation

A new digital campaign is looking to flood social media sites with accurate, science-informed content about COVID-19.

Misinformation and conspiracy theories have plagued the online discussion around COVID-19 since the pandemic began. 

But that misinformation has shifted in the past 10 months, says Timothy Caulfield, Canada research chair in health law and policy at the University of Alberta. Canadians are becoming more polarized, and ideology and personal identity have become bigger factors in COVID-19 misinformation.

“You see anti-vaxxers using language like choice and liberty and freedom in order to get people into their community. And then all of a sudden, this misinformation becomes an ideological flag,” Caulfield said on CBC’s Radio Active on Monday.

To combat inaccurate messages, Caulfield along with a national coalition of scientists, researchers and health experts came together to kick start #ScienceUpFirst, a new campaign aimed at amplifying accurate scientific information about COVID-19.

The campaign’s goal is to spread reliable, science-informed content about the pandemic on social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram and encourage Canadians to share the posts. 

The group behind the campaign wants to respond to the rise they’re seeing in misinformation and conspiracy theories surrounding things like COVID-19 transmission, government responses and, most urgently, vaccines.

Caulfield said it can be difficult to change the mind of “hardcore deniers” of scientific sources, but he thinks there’s a large population the campaign can reach.

“It’s not going to fix everything, and we’re talking about moving the needle. But when you’re talking about something as problematic and as important as the spread of misinformation, moving the needle matters,” Caulfield said.

The misinformation being spread online has been classified as an infodemic by the World Health Organization.

The harm of misinformation to public health was also noted on Tuesday by Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta’s chief medical officer of health. Hinshaw said she wants to promote up-to-date content reviewed by experts in epidemiology, infectious diseases and public health.

“I want to encourage all Albertans to be thoughtful and appropriately critical of what you see on social media or any other platform,” Hinshaw said. “Take a moment to assess the accuracy and consider the source of any information you read before you believe it or pass it along.” 

Carrie Bourassa, a member of the campaign’s steering committee, has been working against misinformation for months. Bourassa, the scientific director of the CIHR Institute of Indigenous People’s Health, has developed fact sheets with her team for Indigenous communities about COVID-19 since the pandemic began, translated into different Indigenous languages.

The hesitancy some in Indigenous communities have about the COVID-19 vaccines is understandable, Bourassa said, because some communities have historically been hurt by scientific misinformation and experimentation.

“It means that as scientists we have to work even harder to gain that trust. Particularly [with] people that have generations of terrible experiences,” said Bourassa, who’s also a professor of community health and epidemiology at the University of Saskatchewan.

Her team just finished a fact sheet about vaccines explaining that the vaccine won’t alter your DNA, won’t give people autism, hasn’t been rushed, and that it will prevent disease and improve health outcomes. Her team’s overall goal is to continue to highlight scientific expertise and the best evidence available

“I don’t think anyone wants to pressure anyone, I don’t think that will do any good. But to at least provide the best information that we possibly can so that people at least will give pause, feel comfortable, think it over and hopefully know they at least have the best information,” Bourassa said.

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