COVID-19 Misinformation – our responsibilities as scientists

By Richard Mott, PhD candidate

The World Health Organization has referred to the current situation with COVID-19 as an infodemic, in recognition of the large amount of information being circulated on this subject.  Clearly not all information being circulated is false; in fact, the majority of information in circulation is factually correct.  Conspiracy theories (such as the virus being spread via the 5G network) and gross misinformation (injecting bleach most certainly won’t protect you from infection) thankfully represent a relatively small proportion of the information out there. However, unfortunately it can have a disproportionately large impact, as well as leading to the stigmatisation of communities or sections of society.

It is very easy to laugh at blatantly false claims and feel that engaging in a debate will in some way legitimise such views, but engagement may be the best policy. According to Caulfield (2020), “the best way to fight misinformation is to swamp the landscape with accurate information that is easy to digest, engaging and easy to share on mobile devices.” Although we might think there is an unstoppable tide of misinformation on social media, the most re-Tweeted posts are those that contain evidence-based, fact-checked information rather than fake news. 

It has also been shown that giving someone a metaphorical ‘nudge’ – reminding people to think about the accuracy and reliability of what they are reading – can have a significant impact on reducing the amount of false information that is re-Tweeted.  This is so important because even a slight tip in the balance of the amount of true vs false information that is available can have a profound impact on behaviour.

There is no doubt that communicating science to a lay audience is a skill that may not come naturally to everyone;  to make science accessible, it involves storytelling whilst avoiding jargon, and like all our skills, science communication is something that needs to be researched and developed. A headline like Does hand sanitizer work only on bacteria?” may prompt fear that hand sanitizer doesn’t work on viruses, but “How does hand sanitizer kill viruses and bacteria?” gives a reassuring message even if the reader goes no further.

Understanding our target audience, the social media they use, and the most effective use of hashtags are all important, but that can require some time investment. On the other hand, something we can all do easily, right now, is boost the work of our colleagues by re-posting and commenting on it. As always, before re-posting, remember to consider the credibility of the information and encourage others to do the same.  Scientific integrity is crucial now more than ever, and it is vital to promote both trust in science and trustworthy science. 

Richard Mott is a PhD candidate at the University of Glasgow’s Institute of Biodiversity, Animal Health & Comparative Medicine. After completing his MSc in equine science at the Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies at the University of Edinburgh (and many years of experience training horses and working as an equitation coach), he has shifted species focus, doing his PhD on dog welfare. His thesis research, which is partially funded by the Scottish SPCA, looks at ways of enriching the environment of rescue and re-homing centres by reducing stress through the use of music.

Richard Mott, PhD candidate

Feature image is original artwork courtesy of PhD candidate Eleni Christoforou, 2020.

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