Battling to defeat the misinformation ‘infodemic’
Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Dr. Meghan Martin, an emergency medicine physician at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg, Florida, has become a direct marketer. Her audience is anyone with a TikTok account and her product is facts.
In a 51-second video headlined “Stop Doing Dangerous Things,” she displayed a social-media post showing a toddler nebulizing hydrogen peroxide, explained why that is unsafe and closed with a drop-kick: “Listen, if you’re going to do something dangerous and stupid, that’s on you. Leave the kids out of it.”
The TikTok got 1.2 million views, nearly 190,000 “likes” and more than 6,000 comments. It is one of hundreds of short videos that Martin, known as @beachgem10 on TikTok, has produced since she started combating medical misinformation early last year. “A lot of people really wanted to know what was going on, the real information,” she said. “And knowing that I’m a doctor and a real person—a mom—they found me pretty trustworthy.”
The need for trustworthy voices during the crisis has prompted many healthcare professionals and organizations to launch campaigns tackling misinformation. “SARS-CoV-2 and misinformation are both infecting everyone and both are causing tons of harm,” said Dr. Eve Bloomgarden, an endocrinologist at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in suburban Chicago. “We have to really take the infodemic as seriously as we take the actual virus.”
Calling misinformation, including intentional disinformation, an “urgent threat to public health,” U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy recently pointed to research showing that false news spreads faster than truth on social media. But social media can also be the best way to spread facts because it is the main information source for so many people, says Victor Agbafe, a medical student at the University of Michigan Medical School and law student at Yale Law School.
That’s why he has worked on medical student outreach for #thisisourshot, a national movement of clinicians and allies working to build vaccine-trust and combat misinformation. Healthcare professionals must step up as communicators, Agbafe said, because people trust their own healthcare providers more than any local, state or federal public health agency, according to a December 2020 Kaiser Family Foundation survey.
“We live in an era of distrust of our large institutions,” Agbafe said. “Physicians have a responsibility to use the scientific information available and to engage with the patient population that they see, and, even more broadly, with their community.”
Bloomgarden and a few physician friends came together as a grassroots coalition in March 2020 to help people understand the quickly changing information about COVID-19. Since then, the group has evolved to become IMPACT—Illinois Medical Professionals Action Collaborative Team—a team of more than 40 physicians, nurses, health communicators, scientists and data analysts that partners with like-minded groups to influence policy and spread medical facts.
“Unless we address this infodemic head-on, we are going to continue to have a very divisive and polarized society, and we’re going to continue to see tragedies like this one play out, whether it’s an infectious disease or climate change or gun violence or many other things,” she said.
As one of its many communication strategies, IMPACT produces easily sharable Fact/Myth/Why This Is False infographics. “Those have been incredibly effective for things like vaccine hesitancy and vaccine misinformation,” she said. “We put them out in Spanish and English, and then they get shared across our platforms and our partners’ platforms.”
When the pandemic shut down Mayo Clinic in mid-March 2020, the health system launched a social media and web-based information campaign to keep its own employees informed with facts. It quickly saw the need to extend that to the public.
“Part of our mission is broadcasting truth,” said Dr. Halena Gazelka, Mayo’s medical director for public affairs. “There’s a lot of misinformation available, but we have wanted to create our platforms as a source of truth.”
She hosts a weekly Q&A podcast with Dr. Greg Poland, head of Mayo’s Vaccine Research Group, to provide COVID-19 updates. “Those have been very, very, popular—we’ve had almost 2 million views on YouTube,” said Gazelka, a pain medicine and palliative medicine specialist.
In September, Poland and a colleague presented a virtual community forum that tackled misinformation head-on, painstakingly sourcing facts and encouraging viewers to consider how they decide what is true.
“If you abandon science as a way to determine truth, you enter into a world of hurt, as we have seen case after case after case in the media, of people who reject vaccines for very ill-formed and uninformed reasons,” he said.
One YouTube commenter said the presentation was “propaganda for experimental gene therapies.” Another disputed Poland’s interpretation of data. Another said: “Corrupt or blackmailed? These guys are fake news.”
The prevalence of such voices on social media shows what health-professional truth-tellers are up against. At Scripps Health, Rachel Wilford, manager of social media, says reporting misinformation to social-media companies is one way to tamp down its spread.
“Facebook in particular has independent fact-checking partners that scour everything that has been reported to them,” she said. “We have found success in getting little banners on Facebook posts, letting people know that these contain misinformation.”
More proactively, Scripps Health recently produced a two-part “Myths vs. Facts” video series to provide vaccine facts for its own staff before the Sept. 30 state mandate that all healthcare workers be vaccinated. “Then we repurposed it for social media because a lot of our followers on social are our own employees, and we thought it would be a really good thing for the public to see as well,” said Janice Collins, Scripps’ senior director for public relations, social media and content marketing.
Lola Butcher is a freelance writer based in Springfield, Missouri.