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Unmasking the dangers of false COVID‑19 rhetoric

Posted by CBC news on July 20, 2020 in Research, News
Jeanna Parsons Leigh
Jeanna Parsons Leigh

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Experts say the spread of dangerous COVID-19 beliefs could lead to more people disobeying public health rules, as false and misleading information runs rampant throughout the pandemic.

Jeanna Parsons Leigh, a medical sociologist and Dalhousie University researcher studying public experiences and misinformation about COVID-19, says she's "heard a lot of troubling information" in her research.

"You know — 'The coronavirus doesn't live in such-and-such temperature, so … drinking boiling hot liquid will dispel the virus from your body,' those types of things, to rumours about how it was created by the Chinese government," said Parsons Leigh.

"There's no end to the stories, rumours, misinformation and disinformation that exist around COVID-19."

Parsons Leigh said the internet can make it easy to spread these rumours, but they can also come from anywhere.

"I don't know if there's one clear answer where they're coming from … but it's definitely from multiple places and multiple layers," she said.

Anti-mask movement 

One source of much debate and misinformation revolves around wearing non-medical masks to prevent the spread of the virus. While the issue isn't as politicized and polarizing in Canada as it is in the U.S., some fringe groups in Canada — such as those in Toronto protesting mandatory mask-wearing — have cropped up.

Such groups often espouse beliefs that wearing masks is hazardous to one's health and does not prevent the spread of COVID-19. 

Some groups protested mandatory mask regulations in Toronto earlier this month. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

While Parsons Leigh said not everyone can wear a mask, they do work for a large majority of the population. She said the rise of movements that aim to discredit preventative measures like masking and physical distancing is dangerous.

"If you believe those things, then you're really not going to comply with essentially the only thing that we know works to combat the coronavirus," said Parsons Leigh.

A Statistics Canada survey released on July 8 indicates that just over a third of Canadians wouldn't wear a mask in public places where physical distancing is difficult. The survey noted that this attitude could change as more mask regulations are put in place.

A number of anti-mask rallies were held over the weekend across the country, including one in Halifax. The group behind the Halifax Facebook event used the logo for the Halifax UK bank as its profile picture, so it's unclear if the people behind it are actually from Nova Scotia. 

Photos posted to social media of Sunday's march in Halifax suggest those attending the rally were met with a number of pro-masking advocates.

While these rallies might be concerning, Parsons Leigh said such events could be a chance for government and public health officials to show up and provide education.

"It goes against everything that, as a province, we've been working towards and doing a really good job of … this is a perfect opportunity for government to sort of counter that," she said.

While the messaging in the initial weeks of the pandemic was unclear, Canadian health officials, as well as the World Health Organization, now recommend the use of masks in public to prevent the spread of COVID-19. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

On Friday, Nova Scotia's top doctor announced that face masks will be mandatory on public transit starting on July 24.

While Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Robert Strang said this measure will not be policed, he urged that people not falsely use medical excuses to bypass the rule. He noted there's a document being shared online that people can print off and try to pass off as a medical certificate to get an exemption for mandatory masking rules.

"It's a reminder that there's a lot of misinformation and downright mistruths being circulated about masks," said Strang. 

Parsons Leigh said the best way for people to combat misinformation is by checking what sources their information is coming from. She also said it's important for all levels of government to keep their public health messaging clear and consistent.

"As soon as the messaging gets confusing, people will get confused," she said.

Parsons Leigh said so far, her research and other research suggests the majority of Canadians are looking to reputable Canadian sources for their information, which is "encouraging."

Conspiracy theories

As part of the spread of misinformation and disinformation, a number of conspiracy theories have cropped up surrounding COVID-19 — including those falsely linking COVID-19 to 5G technology and beliefs that coronavirus was developed in a lab or purposefully spread by pharmaceutical companies. Many have been widely debunked.

A survey from Carleton University among 2,000 Canadians found that about half of the respondents believed one of four conspiracy theories or myths presented in the survey.

Stephen Marmura, an associate professor of sociology at St. Francis Xavier University whose research interests include the proliferation of conspiracy theories, said there's an important distinction to be made when discussing conspiracy theories.

"When we talk about conspiracy theories ... what we're really talking about is conspiracy theories that we think are flawed or silly or wrong or crazy," said Marmura. "And establishing the criteria for that is often trickier than it looks."

Stephen Marmura is an associate professor of sociology at St. Francis Xavier University. (Submitted by Stephen Marmura)

Marmura said conspiracy theories are often borne out of a lack of trust in government and other public institutions. But this mistrust isn't unreasonable, he said, pointing to some real-life examples of actual conspiracies, such as the government exposing soldiers to radiation despite allegedly knowing the risks and the forced sterilization of Indigenous people.

"If you hold those beliefs and you point to those kinds of examples, you can see why people glom onto [conspiracy theories] if they're already suspicious of government or already have grievances," Marmura explained.

Problem won't 'go away any time soon'

Marmura also said organizing online can make it look like these causes have more support than they actually do, and complicating matters is the fact that groups subscribing to harmful conspiracy theories often cherry-pick their information and can compile "impressive" lists of sources that support their beliefs.

The internet, while it can provide an array of fact-checking resources, can also provide echo chambers for people who want to subscribe to false beliefs — and it gives them ample resources to do so.

"Just countering a conspiracy theory with facts, I don't think really works very well," said Marmura. "Precisely because you go back to this problem of, 'Whose facts? Which authorities?'"

 

If governments were more transparent, that would leave less room for people to come up with alternative explanations for what they perceive to be happening.

"I think, really, it's a long-term issue where more government accountability, more government transparency … I think is the most important cure to making not so much conspiracy theories disappear, but less dangerous," he said.

Marmura added that conspiracy theories have been around for a long time and he expects they'll be around for a long time to come.

"When you consider both that rising distrust and the nature of internet technology and the way things spread these days, it's not a problem that's going to go away any time soon, I'm afraid," he said.