Equipping ourselves against mis- and disinformation during COVID-19

By Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam

Throughout the past year, Canadians have shown countless acts of kindness and compassion as we have worked diligently to protect those that we love and to slow the spread of COVID-19. From grocery runs to sewing masks for friends and neighbours to volunteering in long-term care facilities, Canadians have gone above and beyond to show how much we care for each other.

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Reflecting on this, I would like to spend a moment discussing another critical way that we can all continue to protect those we love during the pandemic — by focussing our media and digital literacy skills to counter misinformation. The COVID-19 pandemic has clearly demonstrated that accurate and timely information is key to saving lives. Throughout the pandemic we have relied on technology and information-sharing platforms to keep us safe, informed, and connected. At the same time, these platforms have contributed to an overabundance of information — an infodemic — that worsens the current pandemic by allowing false information to circulate more easily, hampering public health responses, creating confusion and distrust, and ultimately, making it more difficult for people to make vital decisions about their health and safety.

Infodemics are not new. We have seen them throughout history whenever major disease outbreaks have occurred. However, in a year that has been especially difficult for many of us, I am increasingly concerned about the number of false and misleading claims related to COVID-19 that make it more difficult for Canadians to determine fact from fiction and make informed decisions. So how do we make sense of what we see, hear and read?

It is not an easy task to keep up with what feels like an avalanche of new information everyday. News and advice from public health officials necessarily changes and evolves quickly, making it difficult at times for Canadians to stay on top of the latest information. As well, Canadians have been asked to remain physically distant, and so we are understandably spending more time "plugged in" to our devices and on social media at a time when the amount of misinformation on digital platforms is increasing. This is why it is so important that we equip ourselves to recognize misinformation when we see it and ensure that that we have tools to find the facts and make informed decisions.

A good place to start is by first acknowledging that misinformation is everywhere online, and anyone can be vulnerable to it. It is also important that we distinguish between misinformation — false information, that is not created with the intention of hurting others — and disinformation, an extreme type of misinformation created with the intention of causing harm. During this pandemic, disinformation has been used to try to erode social cohesion, our trust in each other, our communities, and even our public health institutions. 

The real danger is that some of us may stumble upon disinformation and, believing it is true, share it with our loved ones. This contributes to the spread of misinformation and makes it more difficult for us to tease out what's true and what's not. It is this spread of misinformation that I would like all Canadians to be on alert for — and to PAUSE and carefully CHECK information before you share so that we can break the misinformation chain.

If something you are reading seems alarming, take a pause. Check the source to verify. Be aware that some sources sharing disinformation may be purposefully designed to look like legitimate public health sites and may even have false logos or references. Before sharing, try to "retrace your steps" to ensure that the information originated from a trusted party. Try checking to see if the information can be validated by other legitimate sources, like the Government of Canada's or the World Health Organization's COVID-19 websites, from provincial and territorial health ministry sites, or from local public health units or other trusted institutions like universities or health organizations. Finally, consider what the majority of experts are saying over what one or two individuals may have to say.

Thankfully, there are many other tools to help us navigate this infodemic. Private companies, governments and researchers around the world are currently working to address the spread of misinformation. Sites like SPOTFakeNews.ca and social media accounts like ScienceUpFirst have resources to help Canadians identify and misinformation and take action to remove it. Organizations like MediaSmarts have resources for parents, children and teachers to help introduce media literacy concepts for children. I have also been encouraged by the efforts made by Facebook, Google, YouTube and Twitter to reduce the volume of misinformation on their platforms. 

Just as we have all taken steps to stop the spread of COVID-19, we all have an active role to play in navigating and responding to misinformation. For example, studies show that we are less able to recognize misinformation when we are feeling anxious or scared, and so disinformation aims to explicitly evoke these emotions. Research also shows that we often do not click on headlines to fully read an article before we share it onward. It is no surprise then to learn that disinformation is created with misleading, but official looking, headlines. Individuals can become aware of these tactics and tendencies in order to more vigilantly defend against the spread of misinformation. If you come across misinformation, report it on the social media platform where you see it, speak empathetically with friends and family members about why something is untrue and share sources of accurate information instead. Being aware and prepared to navigate information is essential to ensure that we can plank both the epidemic and infodemic curves. 

Public health professionals are dedicated to empowering people to make informed decisions about their health, based on the best available scientific data available at the time. The novel nature of the SARS CoV-2 virus has meant that science and decision-making emerge in real time, as the pandemic continues to evolve. I know this has caused confusion at times, making it more difficult for people to tell good information from bad. 

And as the situation in Canada and globally continues to evolve, the Public Health Agency of Canada will continue to share new evidence and data with Canadians so that you can continue to protect your health and stay safe.  Currently we are seeing a steady decline in COVID-19 infections in Canada however, the Chief Medical Officers and I remain concerned about the emergence of a number of SARS-CoV-2 variants in the provinces across the country. Although it is normal for variants to emerge as viruses continuously evolve, these are considered "variants of concern" because they are known to spread more easily, may cause more severe illness and current COVID-19 vaccines may be less effective against them. This is why we need to maintain the strictest vigilance in our public health measures and individual practices. Together these measures will help to prevent these variants from reaccelerating the epidemic and making it much more difficult to control.

One of the great qualities of Canadians is that we take care of each other and we take our responsibilities toward each other seriously. Today I am asking you to think twice about the materials you read and share. Remember, when we share information on social media, we have a responsibility to each other, and to all of the people who will read it. Let's make sure that what we are sharing is accurate and from a trusted source. People's lives depend on it. Together I know we can plank the infodemic curve.

 

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