We are living in a 24/7 news cycle that can easily lead to information overload. In the middle of this information overload is the challenge of identifying what is true and what is not. And we don’t mean true and false based on a person’s political beliefs or other ideology, but rather what is true according to peer-reviewed, evidence-based information. Over the past 18 months, there has been so much misinformation related to COVID-19 that many health experts have said that in addition to a pandemic, we’re also facing an infodemic.
“Just as we continue to do our part to stop the spread of COVID-19, now we must do our part to stop the spread of COVID-19 misinformation,” says LIUNA General Secretary-Treasurer and LHSFNA Labor Co-Chairman Armand E. Sabitoni. “Misinformation being spread online, often about the safety and effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines, is prolonging the pandemic and putting our health and safety at risk.”
Misinformation around COVID-19, vaccines and treatment has become so much of a problem in the U.S. that Dr. Vivek Murthy, Vice Admiral, U.S. Public Health Service and Surgeon General of the United States, has released Confronting Health Misinformation, The U.S. Surgeon General’s Advisory on Building a Healthy Information Environment. Advisory reports of this nature are typically reserved for suicide prevention and substance use issues such as tobacco and opioids. Health misinformation has become so problematic that it’s being elevated to this platform.
“The speed, scale and sophistication with which it is spreading and impacting our health is really unprecedented,” said Dr. Murthy. “And it’s happening largely, in part, aided and abetted by social media platforms.” In the Confronting Health Misinformation report, Dr. Murthy adds that “limiting the spread of health misinformation is a moral and civic imperative that will require a whole-of-society effort.”
According to the World Health Organization, infodemics cause confusion, contribute to risk-taking behaviors that harm your health, lead to mistrust in health authorities and undermine the public health response. They can also intensify or lengthen outbreaks. We’ve seen this firsthand here in the U.S., with this country leading the world in the number of COVID-19 cases and deaths. With misinformation, harmful messages are amplified and clear messages of how to protect your health become murky.
Scientific knowledge about COVID-19 has evolved rapidly over the past year, leading to frequent changes in public health recommendations. Updating protocols and recommendations based on new evidence is an essential part of the scientific process. Recommendations can be true at one point in time, then, as time passes and more information becomes available, this new information is taken into account and recommendations are updated. Frustrating? Sure. Accurate and up to date? Absolutely.
Health misinformation is not limited to COVID-19 or other infectious diseases. In the past, it has also reduced people’s willingness to seek effective treatment for cancer, heart disease and other health conditions.
Tech companies like Facebook and Twitter are taking action to combat misinformation. Facebook launched the global campaign called “Together Against COVID-19 Misinformation” in collaboration with the World Health Organization and other European partners, while Twitter is currently piloting an option for users to report misinformation.
Corporations aside, there are actionable steps you as a consumer and a card-carrying union brother or sister can take to not only provide factual information about COVID-19 and vaccines, but to take it a step further and speak up against misinformation, particularly when it’s being spread in the workplace.
- Learn how to identify accurate health information by deciphering fact from fiction. Is the content grounded in science or coming from an armchair epidemiologist?
- Consider the source. Look for an “about us” webpage or “about me” on social media. Is it a branch of the government, a university, a health organization, a hospital, a business or an individual?
- Focus on quality. Does the site have an editorial board? Is the information reviewed before it is posted? Is it politically charged?
- Be skeptical. Things that sound too good to be true often are. Seek out current, unbiased information.
- Communicate genuinely at the workplace.
- Use credible sources. Look to federal, state and local government and health organization resources. Distribute the LHSFNA’s COVID-19 materials and graphics. Build relationships with your local health professionals and organizations.
- Aim to educate and inform. When communicating health information, your goal should not be to provoke a feeling, but rather educate and promote an action or outcome. Lead with truth and avoid sensationalizing headlines and imagery.
Misinformation has the potential to impact not just our physical health, but our emotional health and social health as well. We have the power to shape our information environment. Social media feeds, blog posts, forums and group chats give anyone and everyone a platform, even if they aren’t educated to speak on the topic. Think twice and do your research before clicking “like,” “share” or “repost.”
[Emily Smith is the LHSFNA’s Health Promotion Manager.]