You do not need statistics to know that health-related misinformation is rampant on social media, including with respect to COVID-19. But here are some jarring examples anyway: Statistics Canada reported that nearly all Canadians saw COVID-19 misinformation online; only one in five Canadians always check the accuracy of online COVID-19 information; and half of Canadians shared COVID-19 information they found online without knowing whether it was accurate.
These statistics are not trivial, as misinformation can endanger public health. Many damaging myths about COVID-19 have circulated on social media, for example:
- COVID-19 can spread by 5G mobile networks (viruses cannot travel through radio waves or mobile networks);
- mRNA COVID-19 vaccines can change your DNA (nope, that’s seriously not how they work); and
- COVID-19 vaccines can negatively affect fertility in women or men (there’s no evidence for this claim).
Health misinformation and conspiracy theories do real damage. They have been linked to a decreased likelihood of following public health advice, such as wearing masks, and can influence health decisions, such as the likelihood to get influenza vaccines and intent to get COVID-19 vaccines.
In this vein, health misinformation can fuel vaccine hesitancy, which the World Health Organization has listed as one of the top 10 threats to global health. That threat becomes very clear and very immediate in the context of COVID-19. With vaccination programs underway, vaccine hesitancy could threaten the goal of herd immunity, which is key to ending the pandemic.
Organizations including the federal government and the Ontario Medical Association are concerned enough about vaccine hesitancy to specifically address it through funding and advocacy, and the World Health Organization has dubbed the extent of misinformation online an “infodemic.”
There is a very real need to ensure that reliable, evidence-based information is as available, plentiful and accessible as misinformation, and that it travels as quickly online. That is precisely the goal of the #ScienceUpFirst initiative: to provide, support and boost accurate scientific information online to help people make informed health decisions.
Championing evidence-based public health
The #ScienceUpFirst project began when public health scholar Timothy Caulfield, Canada Research Chair in Health Law and Policy at the University of Alberta, and Senator Stanley Kutcher of Nova Scotia recruited a national coalition of scientists, communicators and health experts to empower Canadians to work together against misinformation about COVID-19 and COVID-19 vaccines.
As a clinical psychologist with an interest in science communication and health-related misinformation, I was honoured to join the team in the service of those goals, along with other professionals who are independently represented from an array of Canadian universities and organizations. Operationally, the project is supported by the Canadian Association of Science Centres, COVID-19 Resources Canada and the Health Law Institute at the University of Alberta.
The bilingual campaign uses the online hashtags #ScienceUpFirst and #LaScienceDAbord on social media platforms including Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, and will eventually include TikTok. In essence, #ScienceUpFirst uses social media to promote and amplify the best available science-based content, in an effort to debunk misinformation.
The initial goal of the campaign is to follow evidence-based guidelines to target misinformation and conspiracy theories specifically related to COVID-19 vaccines, virus transmission and government response. Eventually, the framework can be applied beyond the COVID-19 pandemic to address other types of health- and science-related misinformation.
At the social media level, the campaign seeks out, evaluates and boosts existing, evidence-based content, with the intention of engaging Canadians to help to share and amplify that content on social media. Importantly, this involves efforts to adapt content and ensure that it reflects and speaks to the diverse socio-demographic that comprises the Canadian population.
The project will also track trending misinformation and respond swiftly with corrected content created as part of the #ScienceUpFirst initiative.
Is it worth it?
Addressing misinformation is definitely worth the effort. Research shows that debunking works and can be effective if it is done correctly.
This means using evidence-based tactics when crafting a message to counter misinformation. These include, but are not limited to: providing the science, using clear and shareable content, referencing trustworthy sources, noting the scientific consensus and its evolution, incorporating narrative and story, leading with facts, being nice and authentic and highlighting gaps in logic and rhetorical devices.
How to participate
The #ScienceUpFirst movement is not passive, but is an ongoing, interactive project designed to thrive on Canadians’ participation.
There are three ways people can help amplify evidence-based information, and debunk misinformation with #ScienceUpFirst:
Follow @ScienceUpFirst on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, and engage with and share content using the hashtag #ScienceUpFirst or #LaScienceDAbord.
Tag @ScienceUpFirst in COVID-19 science-based posts and misinformation posts on all social media channels.
Visit www.ScienceUpFirst.com to sign up for a weekly newsletter.
The project launched at the end of January, and garnered over 8,500 posts and more than 42 million views across social media platforms in its first week.
Health professionals and scientists have an ethical responsibility to promote and practise evidence-based patient care and public health. Part of that mission includes calling out and correcting misinformation online via science communication on social media.
We welcome and encourage everyone to join us.