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The truth is out there. But so are COVID-19 conspiracy theories, says U of A professor

A U of A misinformation expert looks at the rise of conspiracy theories, the threat of normalization and what you can do about it.

Timothy Caulfield says critical thinking skills are key to stemming the 'infodemic'

A woman holds a sign as protesters opposed to COVID-19 restrictions attend a rally before a march in Vancouver in May 2020. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

There are a few absolute truths about COVID-19. But there are many, many mysteries.

As new science emerges, rapid changes in information and health advice have created fertile ground for conspiracy theories and misinformation to flourish, says Timothy Caulfield, a University of Alberta professor of health law and science policy.  

"When things are uncertain, when there's a lot of fear, when the science is still moving, people are more likely to believe conspiracy theories," Caufield said. "That's certainly the situation that we have now."

A recent Carleton University study found that half of Canadians believe at least one conspiracy theory around the novel coronavirus, including 26 per cent who believe it was lab-created bioweapon. 

University of Alberta professor Timothy Caulfield is researching the spread of misinformation during the pandemic, something he calls the infodemic. (Sam Martin/CBC)

That's the kind of data that Caulfield, a Canada research chair in health law and policy, is looking at as part of an ongoing research project into the viral spread of misinformation during the pandemic.

In a wide-ranging Q&A with Nancy Carlson, host of CBC Edmonton's News at 6, Caulfield said sorting good information from bad is as simple as thinking like a scientist, a skill that only requires a healthy degree of curiosity and internet access.

Here is a sample of Caulfield's advice and thoughts from that interview.

Red flags: secrets, anecdotes and motivation

Anecdotes, human stories and testimonials are interesting, compelling and not to be mistaken for evidence. Use them as a springboard to learn more by seeking out a "body of evidence" — a variety of scientific studies that tackle a topic from different perspectives, Caulfield said.

Consider if the information is trying to sell you something, whether it's the obvious marketing of so-called immune boosters (which don't work) or well-disguised pieces of propaganda selling an idea. They're "exploiting this crisis in order to make a profit or really just to put forward an agenda," he said.

Finally, any claims of having secret information is an immediate signal to proceed with caution.

"Look, if there was a cure, if there was something that worked well, I promise, I promise that we would know," he said. "That kind of idea that 'we have secret information' is a common trope. … Be skeptical."

Where is it all coming from? 

"It's really coming from all over and that's why it is so difficult to battle," Caulfield said. But there are a few notable trends.

Celebrities and prominent individuals are the source of about 20 per cent of misinformation, but their posts have extraordinary reach, making up more than 70 per cent of what is shared online, Caulfield said. "That really gives you a sense of the power of pop culture."

Bots, particularly on Twitter, play an important role, while the role of social media in general — Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and more — can't be underplayed. "This really has been a social media-driven infodemic," he said.

Caulfield says social media has been a main player in the spread of false information. (Amr Alfiky/The Associated Press)

The Carleton study found Canadians up to the age of 25 are more likely to believe conspiracy theories. There is speculation, Caulfield said, that this is because of their exposure to social media. There is also research suggesting that seniors may be sharing misinformation, possibly as a result of their lack of social-media literacy. "They don't know to be critical of the information that they're seeing," he said.

Think like a scientist

Research comes in all shapes and forms, with varying degrees of exactness. When reading about emerging science, there are a few ways to gauge the effectiveness of the study behind it, he said.

"It goes to the broader issue of critical thinking and science literacy," he said. "Having the skills that allow you to critique the information that you get."

  • Size: How big, or small, was the study? "Size really does matter in this context."
  • Methodology: An observational study can make interesting correlations, but the data isn't as strong as, say, a clinical study.
  • Body of evidence: Read about other studies on the topic. The World Health Organization and Public Health Agency of Canada are trusted organizations that keep track of the huge breadth of research underway about COVID-19.

Research has found that most Canadians "don't have some nefarious agenda associated with spreading misinformation," Caulfield said. Developing their critical analysis abilities could have an impact on what they share.

"We don't have to get everybody to take a critical thinking class in Canada. Just nudging people to think about accuracy, when they're reading a headline, when they're reading content, will lead to more critical assessment and less sharing of bad information."

Changing course a 'badge of honour'

Should the border be closed? Do masks make a difference? Is hydroxychloroquine the answer? If science is so good, why do public health officials keep changing their minds?

While public frustration is understandable, Caulfield urges people to applaud health leaders for staying on top of emerging science and changing public health rules accordingly.

"If you are a science-based decision-maker, like a public health authority ... it is a badge of honour that you're changing your mind. It's a badge of honour that you're willing to look at the evolving evidence and reframe a recommendation," he said.

The fact that huge, well-resourced entities, like the WHO, are struggling to come up with comprehensive, consistent recommendations shows just how difficult it is to understand the novel coronavirus, he said.

"I think we need to be honest and open about the state of the science, no matter what the topic is," he said. "Because if you're not, you're going to lose the public trust."

One of the downloadable, shareable graphics posted on the World Health Organization's Mythbusters website. (World Health Organization)

Not how to get back to normal

The pandemic is moving into a "normalization phenomenon," Caulfield said — a dangerous trend toward diminishing the seriousness of COVID-19. That, in turn, could threaten public health measures that have been introduced, he said.

"People are frustrated and I think that's why we're hearing it. We're trying to normalize it: you know, the risks aren't really that high, it's only relevant to the elderly."

This week in the Alberta legislature, Premier Jason Kenney referred several times to COVID-19 as an influenza. That type of language that could fall under the "normalizing" umbrella, Caulfield said.

"Alberta has done a great job, I think we can really be proud about how we responded to the pandemic. But calling it influenza? Because it's not influenza," Caulfield said.

"We're still learning about how it's going to play out. And we still need to take careful steps in order to mitigate the harm." 

Timothy Caulfield is a health law and science policy expert. He joins Edmonton News at 6 host Nancy Carlson to take your questions about misinformation during the COVID-19 pandemic. 42:27

Changing the dialogue

Here is one more fact about the COVID-19 infodemic: The mind of a conspiracy theorist will not be changed. At least not easily, said Caulfield. 

"They may go to an idea or a belief for one reason ... but once they start to embrace it, it becomes part of who they are, it becomes part of their personal identity, it becomes part of their personal brand," he said.

If you're determined to give it a shot, consider the words of Greek philosopher Aristotle and frame your conversation with logos (logic), ethos (ethics) and pathos (empathy).

  • Use facts. Credible information can help change people's minds. 
  • Make it interesting. Provide information in a digestible, straightforward manner.
  • Be kind. Avoid aggressive language; be authentic.
  • Be memorable. It might help them change their mind in the future.
  • Use your own story. "Let them know that you understand where they're coming from  because narratives are a good way to sell … the good stuff."

"What you want to do is stop their rhetoric, their belief systems, from infecting the rest of the community," Caulfield said. "We don't want the hard-core deniers to impact the rest of the community in a way that's not rational. That should be the goal of science communication."

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