QF’s global health initiative sees panelists explain how education can help in battle against misinformation
An effective vaccine for COVID-19 could be undermined by fake news, experts have said in a World Innovation Summit for Health (WISH) 2020 session as they emphasized that education is the best way of fighting the spread of misinformation.
We’ve seen the rise of certain infectious diseases because vaccinations have become so subject to people’s fears
Fiona Godlee, Editor-in-Chief at The BMJ, and one of the panelists in a WISH 2020 session titled Fact or Fiction: Fake News and the COVID-19 Infodemic, said: “We’ve seen the rise of certain infectious diseases because vaccinations have become so subject to people’s fears, and those fears are being played upon by a whole range of different groups.
“Not only people who have an academic medical view that vaccines may be harmful, but – as we’ve discovered – Russian bots who want to destabilize and have decided that anti-vaccine is a mechanism for just spreading doubt and putting fear in people’s lives.
Godlee was joined by writer, communicator, and strategist Alastair Campbell – who was Director of Communications for former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair – as he spoke about how fake news has emerged over recent years.
We’ve created societies and cultures where we believe what we want to believe. And we can find anything to support what we already believe if we look hard enough for it
“We’ve created societies and cultures where we believe what we want to believe,” he said. “And we can find anything to support what we already believe if we look hard enough for it.
“I think what social media has done is forced people into ever-narrower circles of understanding and circles of debate. And, of course, what I thought would’ve happened when fake news started was that political leadership would recognize that it was a challenge to them, instead, what we’ve seen is political leadership has exploited it to their benefit.
“One thing that has to be done to get us to a place where we could feel there was at least some sort of playing field that we all recognize as an objective truth – which I think we all need – is, where we are in democracies, to get rid of those people who have exploited this to their own ends.
“Donald Trump is one of the worst examples. He said ‘I won the election’ – and he said it as a fact. He’s used the way the media landscape has changed, he’s used that to develop a backing where people will believe him. It’s not just that they’ll support him for saying it; they’ll believe him.”
Speaking about fake news in the time of a pandemic, Godlee said: “We’ve had people promoting hydroxychloroquine for the treatment of COVID, and doing that with very poor science. And if you go on to the internet, you can find people who feel like that science has been suppressed.”
Mihajlo Popesku, Head of Research, Auspex International, spoke about why consumers believe misinformation, which includes belief built by repetition; adding an image to a headline, which he said makes the source several times more likely to be trusted than just facts; and motivated reasoning.
To tackle misinformation, he explained: “First and foremost, we have to educate people. We know – the science shows us – that the people who are particularly susceptible to misinformation are generally older people, as well as people with lower education. Younger people, on the other hand, have more chances to be educated in schools; they handle their information better.
“The second thing I believe is going to help us is enforcing tech giants to label and prevent fake news spread. And finally, we – as consumers of news - have to call out news and headlines, if we see that they’re being misleading.”
Godlee also highlighted the role of education in tackling fake news. “We have to keep educating those around us, especially the young, how to appraise evidence and how to make a rationale argument, how to deal with uncertainty,” she said. “We have to invest in and support really good journalism, so that there people who are actually actively presenting challenge and checking the facts for us.
“There is no ultimate truth, but there are facts. And there are rational arguments around the facts. We have to teach and encourage rational argument.”
WISH is Qatar Foundation’s global health initiative, and this year’s summit – held under the theme One World Our Health – is taking place from November 15-19. Free to attend, interested participants can register at 2020.wish.org.qa