How the spread of COVID-19 misinformation is undermining trust in public health
96% of Canadians say they've seen false or misleading COVID-19 info online: StatsCan
Over the Easter weekend, photos began to surface on Facebook showing British Columbia's provincial health officer unmasked at an airport.
Another photo appeared to show Dr. Bonnie Henry boarding a helicopter.
Commenters claimed the health official was flying to Victoria to visit family over the long weekend, violating her own guidelines on non-essential travel.
The problem? It wasn't true.
B.C.'s Health Ministry confirmed to CBC News that weekend that Henry flew back to Victoria, where she lives, after delivering a COVID-19 briefing in Vancouver earlier that day.
While Henry appeared unmasked in a photo, she seemed to be sitting alone in an airport waiting lounge with a cup of coffee, with no one around her. A third photo showed her masked while waiting to board.
The false rumour about Henry's weekend trip, which has persisted online in the weeks since, reflects an "infodemic," a term used by the World Health Organization that denotes the torrent of information, much of it false, during a disease outbreak.
In the past year, social media pages have circulated a fake list of COVID-19 wisdom attributed to Henry; recurring rumours of stay-at-home orders in B.C. (denied earlier this month by B.C.'s health minister); and in mid-April, speculation of a code orange triggered at Surrey Memorial Hospital signalling a mass casualty event (quickly debunked by the Fraser Health Authority).
That hearsay has spread alongside long-entrenched claims that vaccines are dangerous and the pandemic is a hoax — and experts say it's undermining public institutions and endangering people's health.
Falling for claims
"If you spend five minutes on Instagram or Facebook or TikTok, you will find a lot of bad information," said Ahmed Al-Rawi, an assistant professor at Simon Fraser University's School of Communication in B.C. who specializes in disinformation.
"Canada, as well as British Columbia, are not immune."
Ninety-six per cent of Canadians who used the internet to search for information on COVID-19 said they saw material they believed was false or misleading, according to Statistics Canada.
WATCH | How to spot COVID-19 misinformation:
What distinguishes misinformation from disinformation is intent, with the latter designed to mislead. Some users, for example, will purposefully try to undermine Henry by using hashtags such as #bonniehenryisafraud, Al-Rawi said.
"These posts are made for various reasons, including sometimes frustration. A lot of people are frustrated because of the lockdown and the kind of policies associated with the pandemic, lack of employment opportunities and probably the kind of psychological pressure that some people live in," he said.
Henry is "like Dr. [Anthony] Fauci in the U.S. She's a representative of public health institutions. So attacking her personally is just like attacking the system."
Some posts can appear to be on the fringe, but other claims manage to dupe the wider public. More than half of Canadians said they have shared COVID-19 information online without first verifying the claim, according to Statistics Canada.
Hayley Price, a 27-year-old doctoral student at the University of British Columbia, said her 63-year-old mother texted her earlier in April warning of an impending lockdown in the province.
When Price asked for the source, her mother said she had received a message from a friend, who's a nurse, of a screenshot warning that Henry would be issuing a stay-at-home order.
Price reviewed the message and picked up the tell-tale signs that something was off: Henry's first name was mistakenly spelled "Bonny" and her title was erroneously labelled "provincial health office."
She then told her mother the rumour was false.
"Considering it came from someone in health care, I was like, this is concerning," Price said.
Who do communities turn to?
The number of British Columbians who fall prey to misinformation, and the sources they turn to, is the subject of ongoing research at the B.C. Centre for Disease Control (BCCDC).
A survey of more than 3,000 residents last spring found that more than half of respondents believed in unproven COVID-19 treatments such as vitamin C and heat exposure.
Just over half looked to Henry for their COVID-19 information, while one-third opted for the BCCDC or their regional health authority.
The divide was also cultural and generational.
Two-thirds of white respondents said they trusted Henry, compared with about half of Chinese and South Asian respondents and 31 per cent of Indigenous respondents. And 80 per cent of people aged 65 and older said they had confidence in Henry, versus just 29 per cent of those aged 18 to 24.
Emily Rempel, who is part of the BCCDC research team, said public health relied heavily at first on its web content and on Henry for its communications, but the survey showed that not all communities relied on those sources.
"They are more vulnerable solely because they don't have information offered to them in an accessible way," she said, noting that translating materials has helped provide communities with accurate information.
Risk of vaccine hesitancy
Those vulnerabilities have gained newfound urgency as health officials try to combat vaccine hesitancy amid Canada's third wave of the pandemic. Henry acknowledged last week the amount of misinformation circulating about vaccines and encouraged people to turn to official sources.
David Chaney, a city planner in Vancouver, said family members and friends have sent him memes and videos during the pandemic claiming to warn about vaccine dangers.
He said his mother grew doubtful about the AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine after coming across an unsubstantiated claim on her Facebook page warning that a healthy 60-year-old had died two hours after receiving the shot.
Chaney said his mom initially turned down an appointment offer from a pharmacy and had her shot delayed by two weeks.
"I worry that plenty of other people delay their incoculation due to this type of thing," he said.
Rempel of the BCCDC said misinformation requires "a whole new set of tools in the toolkit," with the centre conducting another survey on misinformation this spring (the results have yet to be published).
"You need to think about TikTok. You need to think about how you encourage conversation resources for friends and families. You need to think about radio and non-English languages, all strategies that we're trying to expand."
But false claims, such as those made about Henry's Easter weekend trip, are harder to remedy, as they ultimately break down trust, Rempel said.
"This is why misinformation and disinformation is so dangerous," she said. "Once you've lost trust in your communications, it's very hard to build it back up again."