Misinformation in the age of COVID-19: What are our responsibilities as scientists?

Letter to the Cell Biology Community:

We are facing a serious issue in our society: the avalanche of misinformation with which the public is bombarded. Currently, we are facing the worst pandemic in our lifetimes, COVID-19. As this virus spreads around the world, spreading faster is the flood of misinformation. Some of the misinformation originates from fringe groups with radical beliefs and some from people, organizations, and politicians looking for advantages in a crisis.

As the world finds itself embroiled in an “infodemic,” the actions of governments and social media organizations have not been sufficient to stop the spread of misinformation. Much of this misinformation is falsely presented as being embraced by the scientific community. This can range from incorrect and nonfactual explanations of the origins of the COVID-19 virus to ineffective and potentially harmful treatments for afflicted individuals. There are significant issues that people are struggling with, including constantly dealing with sickness and death, a lack of healthcare, increased financial hardship, and a general level of stress during uncertain events. It is understandable that these pseudo-news stories are appealing because they provide immediate hope when sometimes there is none.

In a recent World View article in Nature,1 Timothy Caulfield strongly condemns the misinformation that is running rampant and gives the scientific community places to start to curb the tide. He advocates that more researchers become active in the public fight against misinformation. He singles out the practice of “scienceploitation,” where agenda-driven misinformation and products are peddled by snake-oil salesmen using false claims of approval by government bodies, inappropriately accrediting valid studies, or just downright lying. He appeals to our moral duty as scientists to point out the misinformation and combat it with scientific information that has been rigorously tested. He proposes a “herd immunity” approach of scientists storming social media to protect the public from the pseudoscience and lies.

As part of the cell biology community, I do not disagree with this approach, but find myself overwhelmed by providing scientific information to dishonest actors. These “misinformation trolls” are not interested in having an honest conversation or increasing their understanding, but are pushing an agenda that is largely anti-science. Advocates of extreme fringe views have built their messages on a foundation of a general distrust of academia and science. When addressing these trolls, in the back and forth, I find myself falling down a rabbit hole of arguments. Their arguments usually boil down to science is not fact, that we are too arrogant to accept other thoughts, and that we are all biased so that we can obtain grant funding. So for every factual tweet or comment on a post, there are five or six comments of misinformation. In trying to address these misinformation trolls, I find myself giving legitimacy to their arguments by giving their lies my attention, and I wonder where the balance lies.

As scientists, we daily seek information and make decisions based on scientific observation, methods, and experimentation. We also police ourselves, with peer review being a strong pillar in the process of disseminating scientific information. Scientific peer review has served the globe for several generations and, while not perfect, has led to unbelievable discoveries that have shaped our society. The peer-review process is also a target that anti-vaccination advocates and climate change deniers point to as evidence of our bias. The perceived deficiency of peer review is a talking point that the misinformation trolls routinely use to combat scientific evidence. In these discussions, I find myself with a lack of my own talking points. As scientists, we are genuine in our beliefs and if there is evidence that follows the scientific method, then we would lend creditability to it. However, I am not skilled in debating dishonest actors and my training usually leaves me befuddled on how to respond. Further fostering a sense of futility are the results from the 2012 psychological study by Stephan Lewandowsky,2 which showed that misinformation persists in individuals even when they are presented with the correct information. Specifically, this study showed that if information is in line with your prior beliefs and makes a plausible story, you are more likely to believe and promote the information even though you are aware that it is incorrect.

So, my question to the cell biology community is: Are we being asked to fight an uphill, unwinnable battle on social media? Not so! Lewandowsky and colleagues offer some guidance about dealing with the indefatigable nature of misinformation. They suggest several approaches including providing people with a narrative that replaces the gap left by the false information, focusing your argument on the facts you want to highlight rather than correcting the myths, making the information you want people to understand simple and brief, always considering your audience and the beliefs they are likely to hold, and finally strengthening your message through repetition. As cell biologists in a time of a worldwide crisis, we are defined by the Peter Parker principle, “from great power comes great responsibility,” and as advocates on social media, it is ever important to know how to effectively tailor our message to combat the ever-present threat of misinformation.

Blake Riggs
Department of Biology
San Francisco State University

1Caulfield T (April 27, 2020). Pseudoscience and COVID-19— we’ve had enough already. Nature. www.nature.com/articles/d41586-020-01266-z.

2Lewandowsky S, Ecker UK, Seifert CM, Schwarz N, Cook J (2012). Misinformation and its correction: Continued influence and successful debiasing. Psychol Sci Public Interest.13(3):106–131. 10.1177/1529100612451018.

About the Author:

Blake Riggs is an associate professor in the Department of Biology and San Francisco State University.