COVID-19: How Misinformation Spread About Vaccines and Deaths | Opinion
During the summer of 1999, 42 Belgian school children fell mysteriously ill and had to be hospitalized. Two days later, eight more children fell similarly ill, followed by dozens more in nearby towns until more than 100 children were taken to hospital complaining of nausea, dizziness and headaches.
Their families were, of course, worried and wondering what could be causing the disease. Someone pointed to the Coca-Cola drink because many affected children had drunk it the same day they were hospitalized. From there, an outcry grew until Coca-Cola made its biggest recall in the company’s 113-year history.
Upon further investigation, however, it was discovered that the soda probably had do not been the cause of the epidemic after all; half of the affected students had not touched the drink in the first place. In the end, the real culprit of the mysterious disease eluded people too distracted by the hysteria of a faulty assumption to ever get to the root of the problem.
This true story is one of many examples that Malcolm Gladwell provides in his book “The Tipping Point”, illustrating the dangers of asking the consequential questions of unqualified people and then jumping to conclusions based on the misinformation they provide.
It’s a pattern we see all too often these days on social media, especially when it comes to COVID-19.
For example, at the start of the pandemic, I saw many people on social media openly questioning influencers, politicians, and even their own peers about the effectiveness of face masks in preventing the spread of COVID-19.
Some answers were based on hearsay (everyone seems to have a “friend of a friend whose husband is a doctor”); others by local science experiments such as exhaling smoke through a face mask to show that masks cannot trap all. That was enough to convince many of my family and friends to give up masking right from the start.
In reality, all the anti-maskers I’ve known throughout the pandemic made up their minds about face masks before a single study was done on the issue. And the data that eventually emerged to show the effectiveness of face masks as part of a broader strategy in preventing the spread of COVID-19 has largely failed to change the instinctive assumptions that were made months before.
Beyond the trivialization of face masks, however, the pandemic has seen a host of more catastrophic consequences, such as people downplaying the severity of COVID-19 or deterring others from getting potentially life-saving vaccines. Such behaviors have contributed to countless preventable deaths and the flooding of many hospital systems. Misinformation has proven particularly damaging in the age of social media, when lies have spread faster and wider than qualified people have been able to correct them.
Examples of such behavior include when commentator Clay Travis incorrectly exposed on a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report on the comorbidities and lethality of COVID-19 for its many supporters, prompting many public health officials to refute his logic. Same for when Tucker Carlson, Fox News host and podcaster Joe Rogan touted the animal dewormer ivermectin as a safer or better way to prevent COVID-19 than vaccines – a dangerous position that had to be repeatedly refuted by the CDC and Food and drug administration.
More recently, misinformation has been widely disseminated about hundreds of professional athletes who are believed to have died after being vaccinated against COVID-19. A fact checker tracked down the rumor when a Danish soccer player suffered a heart attack in the middle of a match. A Czech blogger tweeted that the player had been vaccinated 12 days before the game and blamed the vaccine for the player’s collapse. It turned out that the player had not been vaccinated at all.
But at that time, it didn’t matter. Questions about why this athlete (and apparently dozens of others) had “dropped dead on the playing field” were already spreading on social media. Just as Coca-Cola was wrongly implicated in the hospitalization of children in Belgium, coronavirus vaccines have become the culprit. Such theories were eventually promulgated by no less than a seated american senator and one former NBA star. The depressing saga was like a phone game, only then everyone is able to see exactly where messaging went wrong every step of the way.
Throughout the pandemic, I’ve often wished more people would appreciate the wisdom of Occam’s razor, a centuries old principle that says that if you have two competing ideas explaining the same phenomenon, the most obvious explanation is the most probable.
For example, yes, it’s theoretically possible, like Jacob Hess argued in Public Square magazine, that the COVID-19 vaccine contributed to the death of one of 24 people died in a New York state nursing home two weeks after 193 residents were vaccinated. But it is far more likely that they died of COVID-19 and its effects, given that a massive outbreak of the disease had begun days before residents, who are particularly vulnerable to the disease due to their age, have not even received the first dose of the vaccine.
To suggest otherwise is to arouse suspicion about a meal of oysters and poached salmon that 1,500 people shared hours before perishing at sea, not to mention an iceberg or that the deceased ate that meal aboard a ship called Titanic.
None of this, of course, denies that the scientific process requires rigorous skepticism of the evolution of scientific observations in order to reach research-based conclusions. Asking thoughtful questions is also necessary for advancing new ideas in any field and important for keeping the powerful in check.
But there is a danger in questioning already compelling evidence or asking questions and presenting information in a way that casts doubt on the very tools and practices needed to get through a pandemic with the fewest possible deaths. . Even people with the best of intentions can ask questions and make statements in a way that fosters skepticism or leads people to draw the wrong conclusions.
In the end, I pray that the worst of the pandemic – as well as the most restrictive preventive measures – are finally behind us. Still, I hope we don’t forget the lessons we’ve learned along the way, including the importance of having all the facts before jumping to conclusions and the need to be accountable for any information we seek or transmit.
We would do well to remember, as Gladwell said, that we live in an age “ruled by the logic of word of mouth, by the contagious messages that (people) pass on to each other”.
Daryl Austin is a Utah-based journalist. His work has appeared in National Geographic, The Atlantic, The Wall Street Journal, Psychology Today and The New York Times.