Episode 37 | #COVIDConvo Ep. 12
#COVIDConvo Ep. 12: The Impact of Misinformation Surrounding COVID-19
Alex and Dr. Wendy Tong, MD MHA, talk about the recent events related to the COVID-19 pandemic happening all over the world and discuss topics like healthcare, eldercare, and keeping your loved ones safe.
In this episode, they’re discussing the prevalence and impact of misinformation surrounding COVID and what we can do about it. They are also joined by Gabby McKenna, who works with Dr. Tong at Wendy’s Team.
Summary of the episode:
Welcome back to COVIDConvo with Dr. Wendy. We also welcome Gabby McKenna who works with Dr. Wendy at Wendy’s Team. This week we just passed the one year anniversary of when the first case of COVID-19 was identified in China. In this year, we have experienced unprecedented events and we’ve seen how this pandemic has changed the world as we knew it. And what a year it has been! We have learned a lot about the virus but we also have a lot that we are still in the process of discovering. There’s a large body of information surrounding COVID however there’s a lot of misinformation out there also. Dr. Wendy can you share with us some of the more impactful and commonly held misconceptions about COVID you know about?
First of all, I thank you Alex for taking on this topic of misinformation because it’s not only a prevalent problem but it’s a problem that is costing lives. Misinformation affects people’s behaviors and ends up killing people. One of the more dangerous pieces of misinformation is “cases are rising but death rates are decreasing therefore the deadliness of the virus is overstated”. This piece of misinformation has two statements, the first is true however the conclusion is incorrect. Cases are increasing because of the availability of testing that we didn’t have early in the pandemic. More cases are getting diagnosed. Death rates are calculated by dividing the number of deaths by the number of cases. The number of cases have increased because of the availability of testing. There are many cases that in the past would have been left undiagnosed because we just didn’t have the test to identify them. The impact of this misinformation is that it gives people a false sense of security that maybe COVID is just like the flu and it isn’t as deadly as we’ve been led to believe.
Gabby: Wendy and I came across a gentleman who revealed that he got infected after meeting with his church group for a meal and when we asked him why he chose to take of his mask in a group of eight people, he said even though he knew how COVID was transmitted, he had heard from a radio show that for men like him in his sixties, the death rate was so low that wearing a mask was not necessary. Of the eight people who met, seven of them had symptoms and of those seven, five tested positive and two chose not to get tested. Only one out of the eight tested negative. Sadly, the men brought the infection home to their families and one of the wives tragically passed away from COVID in her fifties.
That’s a tragic story and it illustrates how misinformation can cause fatal consequences. I know that a major source of misinformation is social media and I’ve seen a report that sampled several hundred posts and using independent fact-checkers, a falsehood rate of 59% with Twitter posts, 27% with Youtube posts, and 24% for Facebook posts. How is all this misinformation making its way through? Aren’t there fact-checkers? And how are they credible to so many people including some rather intelligent and well-educated people?
Fact-checkers have limited resources and knowledge and are overwhelmed by the sheer volume of social media posts. The number of social media posts increased by 900% between January to March this year. Misinformation can fool many people because for the most part, they are not entirely false. Rather, there is usually some nugget of accepted and established information that is often even true. However, the true information is manipulated so that it is reconfigured, recontextualized so that the concluding message is credible even if it is untrue. In the example I gave, the first statement is true, cases are indeed rising and death rates are decreasing” and lends credibility to the concluding message that the virus is losing its deadliness which is absolutely untrue.
Dr. Wendy, do you have any suggestions on how we as a community and as individuals can reverse the misinformation out there? It’s out there and will be out there for the foreseeable future.
Wendy: It’s interesting you ask Alex. For the past week, I’ve been asking myself the same question. The gentleman who Gabby shared about earlier, had heard me and others caution about COVID but he didn’t relate it to himself. I’ve wondered if my effectiveness as a communicator is limited because many people relate to me as an authority figure and it takes away from their listening. I believe that the only way to overcome misinformation is through dialogue that people can relate to. It doesn’t replace the information from scientific and expert sources but the very personal and relatable conversations touch people and inspire them to take actions that they might not have otherwise.
I’m twenty-seven and fall into an age group that has gained notoriety during the pandemic for disregarding quarantine, social distancing, and face mask-wearing. I feel like an outlier because I work with seniors and have been extremely vigilant to their concerns and welfare especially since early March when I first heard of COVID-19. To Wendy’s point, it’s not just leaving it to our politicians, doctors, and experts to talk about COVID, it’s important for us to all join in the conversation so everyone knows how serious it is and how it affects our entire community, our friends, family, neighbors, kids, pastors, immigrants, military, inmates, food preparers and politicians. Last night, I watched a video post from a social media campaign that the governor of Colorado, Jared Polis had created called “Share your COVID 19 experience”. I watched a nineteen-year-old woman share her experience and it was extremely powerful. She admitted to even denying that she had COVID-19 despite experiencing symptoms, until one day she woke up and felt like she couldn’t breathe. I give her a lot of credit for speaking up because it seems that there’s a stigma amongst those who test positive and it’s important we listen to them with grace. I invite everyone who listens to this podcast to share their personal experience of how COVID-19 has affected their life and the lives of those they love. People need to listen to those working on the frontlines against COVID, the ones who see it every day, and realize how easily it turns into a community issue.