Politics

Tam takes aim at COVID-19 'infodemic,' urges vigilance over misleading online content

Canada’s chief public health officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, on Sunday warned Canadians to maintain vigilance about the pandemic information they consume online as misleading content widens its reach.

Chief public health officer ‘increasingly concerned’ about false claims and distrust

Canada's chief public health officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, urged Canadians on Sunday to be mindful of the COVID-19 information they come across online as misleading information grows in the wake of the pandemic. (Arun Sankar/Getty Images)

Canada's chief public health officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, on Sunday warned Canadians to maintain vigilance about the pandemic information they consume online as misleading content widens its reach.

"Throughout the pandemic we have relied on technology and information-sharing platforms to keep us safe, informed and connected," Tam wrote in her Sunday COVID-19 update.

"At the same time, these platforms have contributed to an overabundance of information — an infodemic — that worsens the current pandemic by allowing false information to circulate more easily, hampering public health responses, creating confusion and distrust, and ultimately making it more difficult for people to make vital decisions about their health and safety."

Sunday's statement — which normally dives into a topic related to COVID-19 — was largely focused on battling misinformation and disinformation that has arisen over the course of the pandemic.

The public health crisis has sparked a torrent of misleading information and conspiracy theories about the origins of the virus, how it is transmitted and the efficacy of vaccines.

Tam said false information has attempted to erode social cohesion and trust during the COVID-19 crisis and makes 'it more difficult for Canadians to determine fact from fiction and make informed decisions.' (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

In early February, Statistics Canada published a report that found that almost all Canadians who used online resources to research the novel coronavirus believed they spotted misinformation online.

One-fifth of Canadians always checked the accuracy of COVID-19 information found on online platforms, while half of Canadians shared information they were unsure was accurate.

False information used to erode trust

"I am increasingly concerned about the number of false and misleading claims related to COVID-19 that make it more difficult for Canadians to determine fact from fiction and make informed decisions," Tam warned.

Canada's top doctor acknowledged the frustrations of Canadians struggling to keep up with constantly evolving public health advice and noted that pandemic restrictions mean people are spending more time on social media than usual.

"It is also important that we distinguish between misinformation — false information that is not created with the intention of hurting others — and disinformation, an extreme type of misinformation created with the intention of causing harm," Tam said. 

"During this pandemic, disinformation has been used to try to erode social cohesion, our trust in each other, our communities and even our public health institutions."

Tackling misinformation

Canada's threatened information landscape has led some people to take matters into their own hands.

Timothy Caulfield, Canada research chair in health law and policy at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, is one of the founders of an online campaign launched last month aimed at combating misinformation about COVID-19.

"It's not going to fix everything, and we're talking about moving the needle. But when you're talking about something as problematic and as important as the spread of misinformation, moving the needle matters," Caulfield told CBC's Radio Active.

Misinformation and conspiracy theories continue to be an issue that dogs online discussions about the COVID-19 pandemic. We speak to Timothy Caulfield one of the cofounders of a new digital media campaign that wants to combat that misinformation. 7:35

Others, including First Nation leaders and regional public health officials, have moved to tackle vaccine hesitancy and misleading information in their own communities.

In her statement, Tam advised Canadians to check where information comes from, even if it appears to come from a legitimate source. 

"Try checking to see if the information can be validated by other legitimate sources, like the Government of Canada's or the World Health Organization's COVID-19 websites, from provincial and territorial health ministry sites, or from local public health units or other trusted institutions like universities or health organizations. Finally, consider what the majority of experts are saying over what one or two individuals may have to say."

She also recommended fully reading articles rather than only headlines, reporting false information on social media platforms and speaking with friends and family when something untrue is shared.

About the Author

Raisa is a writer and producer with CBC's Parliamentary Bureau. You can find her on Twitter at @R_SPatel.

With files from CBC Edmonton

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