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The problem with combatting the misinformation swirling around COVID-19 is, according to University of Alberta health law professor Timothy Caulfield, that all fronts the fight takes place on are of equal importance.

Timothy Caulfield

Timothy Caulfield

“For a long time there has been this tolerance of pseudoscience and misinformation,” said Caulfield. “But there are recent studies that show once people believe a little bit of misinformation, it’s easier to believe other misinformation.”

And although many of the inaccuracies may seem like harmless conspiracies for the unreachable fringes – like the idea that the pandemic is a hoax – Caulfield said such notions can snowball and become a problematic belief that “clusters” with other hard-to-believe bits of misinformation.

“Even if it seems absurd and frivolous, it’s still important to counter it because it can kind of take on a life of its own,” he said.

“The takeaway here is debunk fast, debunk well.”

To help counter this COVID-19 misinformation in all its forms, Caulfield helped create #ScienceUpFirst, an innovative partnership between the U of A’s Health Law Institute, the Canadian Association of Science Centres and COVID-19 Resources Canada, which received $1.75 million last week from the federal government’s Immunization Partnership Fund created to support vaccination efforts.

Caulfield explained that the initiative began with a phone call he had with Sen. Stan Fischer back in August.

“In that conversation we recognized the incredible impact that misinformation was having on public discourse, on public beliefs and even on behaviour,” said Caulfield.

With misinformation running virtually unchecked, the interdisciplinary team made up of clinicians, researchers, science communication experts and policy experts from across Canada launched #ScienceUpFirst across all major social media platforms this past January.

“We wanted it to be a positive movement,” said Caulfield. “Not a lot of snark, not a lot of negativity and something where we really do try to listen to people’s concerns and provide them with the information that they need in a form that’s digestible, engaging and shareable.”

And while they don’t want to get confrontational, Caulfield noted the group is definitely watching and listening to those primary sources of misinformation to get a sense of what’s out there.

“We want people to feel like they can go to #ScienceUpFirst on whatever platform they’re comfortable in and find the answers that they need.”

With the new funding, Caulfield said they have been able to populate the team with communication and content experts. So far, it seems to be working, with about 138 million impressions since launching in late January.

And while all misinformation needs to be addressed, Caulfield said you can’t change everyone’s mind.

“You don’t want to waste your psychic energy on trying to convert the hardcore deniers,” he said.

“The target of #ScienceUpFirst is that movable middle – those individuals who are just looking for answers.”

Beyond the conspiracy theories, some bits create real harm, like the idea that the vaccine causes infertility, that the vaccine can change your DNA, or even an intuitively appealing but false narrative like the vaccines came too quickly.

“Just injecting doubt can create just enough hesitancy, and that lowers the vaccination uptake,” he said.

“This past 15 or 16 months has really emphasized the incredible harm that misinformation can do. I hope that one of the legacies of the pandemic is a greater understanding of the harm and more investment in combating misinformation.”

| By Michael Brown

Michael Brown is a reporter with the University of Alberta’s Folio online magazine. The University of Alberta is a Troy Media Editorial Content Provider Partner.

The opinions expressed by our columnists and contributors are theirs alone and do not inherently or expressly reflect the views of our publication.

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