FHS professor Jeremy Snyder, who specializes in ethics and researches medical misinformation, shares what to consider when tackling misinformation

How to tackle medical misinformation during COVID-19

April 14, 2020

This story was originally published on SFU News.

Fake ‘cures’ and false prevention methods are spreading as fast as COVID-19. Social media posts suggest unproven medical treatments can cure or prevent COVID-19. Some businesses are promoting supplements preying on peoples’ hopes and fears.

To combat these misleading claims, Health Canada issued a warning that selling or advertising health products with false or misleading claims is illegal and that they would pursue “mechanisms and tools” to stop these activities.

Jeremy Snyder is a health sciences professor who specializes in ethics and researches medical misinformation. “Research shows that personal messages that come from someone you know or trust can be effective at spreading misinformation,” says Snyder.

But what about when misleading information comes from the President of the United States of America? Snyder recently published an op-ed in the Washington Post about how Donald Trump made statements misleading people about the severity of the pandemic. Trump has also shared anecdotes about hope for hydroxychloroquine, a medication used to treat malaria that has yet to be tested as an effective treatment for COVID-19. Prescriptions for hydroxychloroquine have increased despite this lack of evidence though many clinical trials are underway to test it.

These anecdotes and reassurances give a false sense of security and can delay the adoption of safe practices like physical distancing.

“What we really need are clinical trials,” says Snyder. “Messages and anecdotes from powerful individuals take us away from what we need, which is the hard and fast science that tells us what actually works.”

Another vein of misinformation comes from a range of alternative or natural products that claim to ‘boost immune systems’ or ‘detoxify.’

“Given that COVID-19 is an infectious disease, something that’s ‘immune-boosting’ will be appealing to people,” says Snyder. “This is a big market that already existed and we’re seeing people taking this as an opportunity to sell these products to a very large, scared public.”

To combat misinformation around COVID-19, Snyder recommends the following:

“When people see misinformation on social media, it’s not necessarily effective to get into an argument,” says Snyder. “Where possible, you can point people to trusted sources such as Health Canada or news sources that have sections about COVID-19.”

Snyder says that speaking with close friends and family can help address misinformation since messaging is more effective coming from close connections, who may be more willing to listen.

“If you see people deliberately spreading misinformation, claiming that they have a cure or hoarding medical supplies, social media is becoming better about allowing you to report those posts so that they can be investigated,” says Snyder.

Modelling good behaviours can help, he adds. “Try to set a good example about how we can all do our part through proven effective measures like physical distancing to help us flatten the curve.”