Canada not immune to the virus of COVID-19 conspiracies
Credible journalism, fact checks by reputable news organizations offer a ‘cure’ to the misinformation epidemic
Like the coronavirus, conspiracy theories and misinformation about COVID-19 are contagious and can spread easily among Canadians.
Is hydroxychloroquine an effective treatment for those infected?
Was the coronavirus genetically engineered in a lab as a biological weapon?
Does regularly rinsing your nose with a saline solution protect you from the coronavirus?
False, unproven and not true, respectively.
Yet recent research suggests Canadians are exposed to a high level of bad information about COVID-19, and many are vulnerable to what some have described as "a pandemic of misinformation" or an "infodemic."
Carleton University's School of Journalism and Communication released a survey last week that showed nearly half of Canadians, 46 per cent, believed at least one of four COVID-19 conspiracy theories. Similar research at the University of Sherbrooke in Quebec indicated one in 10 Canadians believes a conspiracy theory.
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Both studies found that young people were more likely to believe in conspiracy theories and false news. That's not surprising considering that disinformation is most prevalent — and spreads most easily — on social media, which is a primary source of news for younger Canadians.
But all ages are susceptible.
"Everyone has fallen prey at some point to misinformation on social media," Sarah Everts, an associate professor and co-researcher on the Carleton study, said on the university's website. "Anyone who thinks that it's easy to distinguish conspiracy theories and misinformation is at high risk of being fooled."
Trust in news at record high
While some of the major social media and search platforms are taking measures to limit and reduce the amount of misinformation on their feeds, it is difficult to control the internet. CBC News has found that even discredited stories and bogus claims — such as Plandemic, a 26-minute documentary-style video full of false and misleading claims about COVID-19 — continue to resurface on alternative sites and platforms.
It's all the more reason why reputable news organizations must devote resources to fact-checking COVID-19 claims.
The good news is that a number of serious media outlets in Canada have done just that by dedicating journalists to this important work.
The better news is that public trust in those traditional news organizations soared to record highs in Canada as the pandemic took hold, according to a new special edition of the "Trust Barometer" report by marketing firm Edelman Canada.
At CBC News, we launched a COVID-19 disinformation unit to fact-check viral COVID-19 claims on social media and other platforms. The goal is to hold platforms to account for the spread of bad information and unverified claims; to provide accurate takes on that information from verified experts; and to try to help Canadians navigate the minefield of false and misleading information. Find links to some of the team's recent work below.
(CBC's French-language service Radio-Canada has a similar unit, Décrypteurs.)
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Meanwhile, a team of journalists attached to our "Ask CBC News" (COVID@cbc.ca) project has received more than 41,000 questions from our audience on the pandemic, and some of their work addresses misinformation. The team has directly responded to more than 2,200 people, and many user questions have been put to experts on the air or published in one of our more than 40 FAQ articles. These pieces are consistently among the most-read articles on our website.
We recently launched our "Students Ask CBC News" initiative with Curio.ca. Every Tuesday night, CBC News Network produces a live segment dedicated to questions from high school students and expert answers.
And as a member of the Trusted News Initiative, CBC/Radio-Canada joined an industry collaboration of major media and technology companies in March to rapidly identify and stop the spread of harmful coronavirus disinformation.
We view this work as essential public service and are fully committed to it. For as long as there's an "infodemic," CBC News aims to be part of the cure.
Some recent fact checks by our COVID-19 disinformation unit: