The Council of Canadian Academies (CCA), an independent research organization that receives federal funding, recently released a report examining the socioeconomic impacts of science and health misinformation and how it affected COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths between March and November of 2021.
The Impact of Health Misinformation
According to the report’s estimations, at least 2,800 Canadian lost lives, tens of thousands of hospitalizations, and $300 million in hospital expenses could have been saved if COVID-19 misinformation did not exist.
For the Canadian researchers who contributed to the report, misinformation contributes to a lack of adherence to public health measures and vaccine hesitancy, which can cause vaccine-preventable disease outbreaks and increased healthcare costs that may directly affect the well-being of vulnerable populations.
Misinformation also amplifies social divisions triggering conflicts and violence often directed at racialized communities. Moreover, misinformation contributed to the decline in trust in scientific, government, and healthcare workers and institutions in Canada. Canada could have seen roughly 200,000 fewer COVID cases and 13,000 fewer hospitalizations if all the vaccine-hesitant Canadians had chosen to be vaccinated against the virus, the report says.
The CCA estimated that over two million citizens were influenced by science and health misinformation saying that the virus was a hoax or exaggerated. Meanwhile, other people believed vaccines caused many diseases that are being “covered up.”
These estimates were described as conservative as they only examined a nine-month period of the pandemic. However, “it is pretty clear that tens of thousands of hospitalizations did occur because of misinformation," Alex Himelfarb, chair of the expert panel that wrote the report, concluded.
For Himelfarb, although misinformation and deception are not new, Canada has become more vulnerable to its consequences.
How to Counter Health Misinformation?
According to the researchers, misinformation deprives people of their right to be informed. It relies on readable messages often backed up with sources claimed to be credible such as a scientific publication, to evoke emotional reactions.
The authors suggested that misinformation can also be driven by someone’s ideology or political background and said that social media contributes to the spread of misinformation. However, making reliable information and verification tools widely available is crucial to help counter “Fake News.”
Rebuilding trust is a difficult long-term process, but several strategies have proven to be helpful, including improving direct access to academic research, communicating research accurately, and carefully selecting the messenger and the medium to reach diverse audiences most effectively, Himelfarb suggested.
To counter spurious claims and build a resilient society, the report’s authors suggest a combination of immediate responses and long-term actions, including identifying misinformation, increasing reliable information availability, and ensuring good education and media literacy. The report also pointed to rebuilding trust in institutions by responding to community needs and responding to misinformation.
For the authors, social media companies can be an accurate information source. “Corrections are effective at reducing the effects of misinformation,” the report confirms, citing Facebook’s COVID-19 Information Center and Twitter’s warning labels containing links to information verified with the help of trusted external sources.