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Truth Be Told (Or Not): Debunking COVID-19 Myths Is A Full-Time Task

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Flickr CC2.0, George Prentice, Boise State Public Radio News, Facebook
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Flickr CC 2.0, George Prentice, Boise State Public Radio News, Facebook
Dr. Ryan Cole (upper right) is the newest member of the Central District Board of Health.

The proliferation of disinformation circling COVID-19 and the efficacies of vaccines and face coverings have approached a level of hinderance that even the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has a webpage titled, “How to Address COVID-19 Vaccine Misinformation.” Where are many of the falsehoods coming from? In many cases, it’s medical professionals, flooding the internet with rarely documented and often unsubstantiated theories.

“In times of crisis, we are more vulnerable to misinformation because we're looking for answers,” said postdoctoral scholar and researcher at the University of Washington Rachel Moran. “And the internet especially provides us with many different answers, depending on what rabbit hole we go down.”

Moran visited with Morning Edition host George Prentice to talk about her research, the motivations of some of the nation’s more celebrated myth merchants, and how someday soon, there may be consequences for their actions.

“It's really necessary that these medical boards and these state officials step in and say that is not an acceptable use of this incredible power and incredible sense of credibility that you get from being a doctor. And so there definitely needs to be some sort of consequence for the actions of these medical professionals that are spreading misinformation.”
Dr. Rahcel Moran

Read the full transcript below:

GEORGE PRENTICE: It is Morning Edition on Boise State Public Radio News. Good morning. I'm George Prentice. It is fair to say that less than a year ago, not many people knew the name Dr. Ryan Cole. He is a Garden City pathologist; but Dr. Cole has made headlines… national headlines. Number one, for his appointment by Ada County commissioners to the Central District Board of Health. And more likely, he's known for calling COVID vaccines “needle rape.” And he advocates for the use of an anti-parasitic drug - something that the FDA and the World Health Organization strongly object to. But Dr. Cole is not alone. Indeed, there are other medical professionals peddling misinformation. So, let's bring in Dr. Rachel Moran. She is from the University of Washington; and she spends her days researching misinformation. Doctor Moran, good morning.

DR. RACHEL MORAN: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

PRENTICE: Let's talk a bit about social media: YouTube, Facebook, Twitter. They say that they try to police this, but indeed they're elevating misinformation.

MORAN: Yeah. You know, we've seen moves by these larger platforms - Facebook and Twitter and Instagram - to remove kind of super-spreader accounts, as we call them - these accounts that are so often spreading misinformation to incredible amounts of followers. And that has made somewhat of a dent into the problem. But the problem is these sites are all networked with one another. So, when a piece of content gets taken down off Twitter, it doesn't mean that it will get taken down to Facebook. And so instead, we see people find creative ways to kind of avoid the censorship of one platform by utilizing another. And so, unless all of these platforms act together, there is no way to stem the tide of misinformation. And instead, what happens is it ends up sort of getting this sense of validation because it's being censored; and that helps it spread even farther. So, there's a backfire effect that we see as well. So, it's definitely a cat and mouse problem to stay ahead of this misinformation.

PRENTICE: And to some degree, it also gives us a sense that there's a great number of anti-vaxers or people who spread disinformation, but that may not necessarily be the case. The fact is, it's a very small fraction of health care professionals.

MORAN: You know, there's always going to be debate within the medical community about whether or not a particular treatment is effective or what should be done. But there is an overwhelming consensus about the efficacy and the safety of the COVID 19 vaccine. And yet, because we see these sort of viral videos on TikTok or these Instagram Live’s, that go incredibly viral as well, it gives us the impression that there's a lot more debate than there actually is. Actually, there's an overwhelming amount of consensus, but it seems like it's a 50/50 sort of split, because the weight of these videos when they do go viral.

PRENTICE: The Federation of State Medical Boards recently put out a statement that says any doctors who, “generate and spread COVID 19 vaccine misinformation or disinformation are risking disciplinary action.” Is it your sense that when and if the pandemic subsides, that there will be fallout and there will be discipline?

MORAN: I certainly hope that there will be a lot of these medical professionals that we're seeing… like there was just this viral video of Dr. Stock in Indiana, and there’s been Dr. McCullough, who is one of the “disinformation dozen.” They’re leveraging the credibility of that title and their association with medical professionalism to make their arguments even seen more authoritative. So, it's really necessary that these medical boards and these state officials step in and say that is not an acceptable use of this incredible power and incredible sense of credibility that you get from being a doctor. And so there definitely needs to be some sort of consequence for the actions of these medical professionals that are spreading misinformation. How that can be enforced is another question. Obviously, if this content is getting taken down from social media, that's a good thing. But how do we have sort of long-lasting records to document when people have been spreading misinformation that directly goes against their Hippocratic Oath to care for the public? So, I definitely hope that there will be some sort of fallout. I'm not sure what that will look like or how that will be enforced, but it's very good to see these state boards taking notice of misinformation as a threat to public health.

PRENTICE: We're talking with Dr. Rachel Moran and her research on misinformation continues at the University of Washington. I am curious about your scholarship and research…. I guess what I really can't wrap my brain around is how is it that these outright mistruths are perpetuated by men and women who are very well-educated and know better?

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University of Washington
Dr. Rachel Moran

MORAN: Hmm. Well, medical professionals themselves are not immune from having political, ideological opinions that may shape whether or not they agree with the administration's actions around the pandemic; or they may agree with the vaccine and vaccine mandates, for example. And so those political ideologies often come to the forefront and they use their medical credibility as a way to suggest that these political opinions are more objective than they actually are. But we see many different tactics that people use to spread outright mistruths. So, as we said, the platforms are taking action to take down COVID vaccine-related misinformation. And we see these strategies to circumvent the kind of guidelines that are being put in place. For example, rather than using the word “vaccine,” they might use what we call a lexical variation or put an emoji instead, to try and avoid getting censored by the algorithms that moderate content; or they might just present something as a question. So, rather than outright presenting something being anti vaccine, they'll say, “I'm questioning the safety of the vaccine”, which is an extremely normal thing to do in the course of being a medical professional. Taking it as a suggestion or posing as a question allows them to spread this hesitancy or spread misinformation while avoiding the moderation from platforms.

PRENTICE: Do you think there's some celebrity element to this as well?

MORAN: There's definitely a sense of ego involved when people gain a significant following for being anti vaccination. You know, we all like to feel like we're valued and we're smart. And when you put that on social media, and it's attached to likes and shares and you associate that with being heard, then there's definitely a sense of celebrity that is created around some of these individuals. And then when the platforms take action, either by taking their accounts away or limiting the tools that they have on those sorts of platforms, these sort of micro-celebrities then become martyrs to the cause - they are being censored by the technology companies, which ends up sort of validating the arguments even further.

PRENTICE: Are we in a moment that is ripe for online conspiracies?

MORAN: That's a difficult question. I think the conditions of the pandemic actually have exacerbated a sort of vulnerability to misinformation. One, because we're more online than we ever had been. And secondly, because we're looking for connection and interaction at a time of an incredibly tumultuous time. And in times of crisis, we are more vulnerable to misinformation because we're looking for answers. And the Internet especially provides us with many different answers, depending on what rabbit hole we go down. But pandemic aside, we obviously have more technology than ever, more ways of connecting with one another. And that is sort of breeding a sense of distrust in institutions like journalism, like science and government. And in those times of distrust, we are looking towards social knowledge, to the knowledge that we find on Facebook and within our communities online, which is not always going to be as credible, and is a space where misinformation can thrive.

PRENTICE: Doctor Moran, what you do is so valued this year and next year and in years going forward. Did you have any sense of…. I mean…why is this your chosen field?

MORAN: I'm really interested in questions of trust.  So, why do people trust certain journalists, for example? Or trust information that we receive from a certain person? And unfortunately, those sorts of questions have been tested by the pandemic, by the recent election. And so, I ended up  studying misinformation as a way to understanding how it is that we gain information about the world around us, and how we build trust in that information in different ways. So, I will be looking forward to a time when there isn't a pandemic to worry about.  And hopefully there isn't as much vaccine misinformation. But people always put their trust in strange places. So, I think there will be always something for me to do, unfortunately.

PRENTICE: Indeed.  And that research continues at the University of Washington. She is Dr Rachel Moran. Doctor Moran, thank you so very much for giving us some time this morning.

MORAN: Thank you.

Find reporter George Prentice on Twitter @georgepren

Copyright 2021 Boise State Public Radio