From the Editors: This blog post by Aditi Subramaniam is a supplemental resource for readers of our Countering Misinformation Lifeology SciComm course! Take the course, try your hand at the activity/quiz within the course, and then find the full answers below!
Illustration by Jordan Collver for the Countering Misinformation Lifeology Course
For those of us who are regulars on social media, the World Health Organization’s announcement that the COVID-19 crisis constituted an “infodemic” would have hardly come as a surprise. By August of 2020, Facebook said it had taken down 7 million posts that they deemed as dangerous misinformation about the COVID-19 crisis, and flagged another 98 million posts as misleading. Instagram’s recommendation algorithms have come under the scanner for suggesting COVID-19 misinformation to users interested in similar posts and topics.
While some of the claims making the rounds on the internet might seem outlandish or laughable, they have often come at a very real cost.
Given the ubiquity of smartphones and the ability to access information (and misinformation) at our fingertips, it falls on each one of us to protect ourselves and the ones we love from the pitfalls of misinformation and its malicious cousin disinformation. We often find ourselves faced with the task of fact-checking claims we come across on the internet.
While fact-checking claims might not come naturally to everyone, it is a skill that we can all hone. Studies have found that it is lazy thinking, rather than political ideology, that more often causes people to fall prey to misinformation. It is very often just a matter of knowing some of the tell-tale signs of misinformation, and nudging ourselves to think about the accuracy of an article before we share.
As part of the activity for our Lifeology course on misinformation, we presented the readers with four statements pertaining to the COVID-19 pandemic and asked them to check which of those statements were true. This blog post will examine the answers to these, and in the process delve a bit deeper into aspects of misinformation that we were not able to cover in the course.
Please read the following statements and evaluate their accuracy by fact-checking online. Mark them as true or false. Think about how you went about fact-checking these claims and the techniques you used to do so.
- The COVID-19 vaccine will cause infertility in many of its recipients.
- The COVID-19 virus mutates 10 times faster than the influenza virus.
- Young people with no pre-existing conditions do not get seriously ill and so do not need to take the COVID-19 vaccine.
- The COVID-19 vaccine development process was able to occur at such a fast rate because the vaccines were not tested against a placebo.
Claim 1 – The COVID-19 vaccine will cause infertility in many of its recipients.
This is a myth that most likely originated from anti-vaccine propagandists who falsely claimed that the antibodies elicited by the vaccines would also target a spike protein called syncytin-1 essential for the formation of the placenta. This piece of misinformation has even prompted some women to be hesitant about taking the vaccine.
The conspiracy theories regarding the COVID-19 vaccine and infertility have continued to become more and more extreme, including those claiming that vaccinated individuals “shed” spike proteins, affecting the menstrual cycle of women around them. These theories are making their rounds on Instagram and other social media, and many of them are spread by anti-vaccine activists and framed as first-person accounts that are hard to fact-check.
This claim also brings to light a feature of effective misinformation – a feature that makes these claims more dangerous. False information is often rooted in just enough science to appear believable – there is indeed a protein called syncytin-1 that is important for the formation of the placenta. However, it is just not biologically possible for vaccinated individuals to have problems making the syncytin-1 spike protein, or ‘shed’ agents that cause infertility in the people around them. This article enumerates a useful set of questions that we can ask ourselves to distinguish real science from pseudoscience.
Claim 2 – The COVID-19 virus mutates 10 times faster than the influenza virus.
This is in fact a myth that the author of this Lifeology course just made up! Sequencing data have suggested that the COVID-19 virus mutates at a slower rate than the influenza virus. I’m guessing most of you didn’t have that hard a time fact-checking this claim. A simple google search with the terms “Mutation rate of COVID-19 virus versus flu” brings up a large number of credible sources with the correct information.
This raises the obvious question – “How do we know which sources are credible?”. As we had mentioned in our Lifeology course, there are many considerations to keep in mind –Does the content seem sensational? Is it a topic that has been covered by multiple outlets? Who wrote this? What have they published previously? Do they have an agenda?
This list, published by Forbes magazine, of outlets that tend to most often publish facts that are well-researched and reported, is a good place to start.
Claim 3 – Young people with no pre-existing conditions do not get seriously ill and so do not need to take the COVID-19 vaccine.
The vaccine is currently available to everyone over the age of 12 in the US. While death rates might be higher among older individuals, young people are not immune to the effects of the virus. Some people develop debilitating long-term symptoms, and there have been cases of young people having died from COVID-19, including people who had no preexisting conditions. Children can also be carriers of the virus, and transmit it to others, even in the absence of symptoms. Unvaccinated individuals, if infected with the virus, also give it a chance to mutate and potentially give rise to dangerous variants.
Claim 4 – The COVID-19 vaccine development process was able to occur at such a fast rate because the vaccines were not tested against a placebo.
In phase 3 clinical studies, all the candidate COVID-19 vaccines have been tested against a placebo. A number of other factors helped fast-track the COVID-19 vaccine development process, including dedicated vaccine funding and previous research that had been done on other coronaviruses.
Concerns such as this one are important for scientists and science communicators to address because they are often held by people who are genuinely afraid and want more information. Engaging with the public in an empathetic manner and addressing their concerns is essential at an uncertain time such as this.
Given that it is extremely challenging to undo the influence of incorrect information once people have already been exposed to it, scientists are now shifting their focus to preventing people from falling for misinformation in the first place. This is called prebunking, and in a very apt vaccine analogy, aims to inoculate people to the effects of misinformation by exposing them to examples of common techniques that are used to generate misinformation.
Whether we are prebunking or debunking, there has never been a more important time for us to actively engage with people who share misinformation. Knowing the best way to engage can make our interactions more effective. To learn more, check out Lifeology’s course on combating misinformation.