Don’t Pass It On 

How to stop the harm of misinformation from spreading

We’ve all probably seen something online, in print, or on television that didn’t seem quite right, or it seemed to go against all the evidence and accepted science at hand. Sometimes it’s simply a mistake or error, but other times – and increasingly so in today’s virtual world – it’s much worse: it’s misinformation.

To learn more about misinformation and its effect, Prairie Manufacturer’s editor, Jeff Baker, spoke with Timothy Caulfield, a Canada Research Chair in Health Law and Policy, a Professor in the Faculty of Law and the School of Public Health, and Research Director of the Health Law Institute at the University of Alberta. In addition to publishing more than 350 academic articles and winning numerous academic and writing awards, Timothy is also host and co-producer of Netflix’s A User’s Guide to Cheating Death and author of Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything?: When Celebrity Culture and Science Clash.

Jeff Baker: What is misinformation and what can it look like?

Timothy Caulfield: Misinformation is really the umbrella term that captures a broader phenomenon that includes everything from disinformation (intentionally pushing things that you know are not true) to conspiracy theories, to inadvertently embracing and spreading untruths. The term captures this broader cultural phenomenon that has really become an incredible challenge for all of us.

JB: How did we get to this point? Is it really as bad as it seems?

TC: It really is bad. I can’t keep up with all the misinformation that is blowing from every corner of pop culture right now. I’ve been studying misinformation for decades and I’ve never seen anything like it. It really has accelerated.

Donald Trump obviously is part of the story, but then we had the acceleration in misinformation around things like climate change, GMOs, and vaccination. Now we’re in the ‘infodemic’ era where we have all this misinformation about the pandemic, and what’s interesting is people are taking greater notice of the problem of misinformation.

Groups like the United Nations, the World Health Organization, research institutions, and governments are all taking note of the harm that misinformation can do.

JB: Speaking of harm, what harm can come from sharing this type of content with our circles, regardless of how big they are?

TC: Some people recognize the existence of misinformation, but they might not think about the harm. And the harm is real. There’s physical harm, where people have died as a result of misinformation or acting on misinformation. People have also been injured and even poisoned. Misinformation has increased stigma and discrimination in the world.

It also has an adverse impact on health and science policy, and the hydroxychloroquine debacle is a good example of that.

It just adds to the chaotic information environment, and I think that’s often overlooked. It creates more noise and makes it more difficult for people to tease out what’s real from what’s not real. It makes it more difficult to make informed decisions about how to live a healthy lifestyle. 

It’s also more difficult even for clinicians and policymakers to make decisions and have the public act on those decisions.

JB: What can individuals do to combat the misinformation that they encounter?

TC: Individuals just need to do their best not to pass on misinformation. 

Yes, there are entities out there – the super-spreaders, like some celebrities, politicians, and other prominent individuals and entities – that spread misinformation, but much of the spread is by individuals on social media. Whether you’re talking about Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or TikTok, it’s spread on there. 

One of my colleagues, Dr. Gordon Pennycook at the University of Regina, is doing research that’s finding that Canadians want to be accurate; they don’t have some nefarious goal. If you can invite people to pause and just think [about accuracy] before they share, we can all have a tangible impact on the spread of misinformation.

We’ve partnered with Media Smarts on a public health campaign that encouraged people to do exactly that: Check First. Share After. It sounds ridiculously simple but there’s evidence to back it up.

Another thing people can do is use good, trustworthy sources of science in order to counter misinformation they see. They can also report misinformation to regulators. If it’s a health product or a health care provider, there are regulatory bodies that people can turn to, and I encourage people to do that.

JB: Can we actually solve this issue, given it seems to be a game of whack-a-mole?

TC: I like to be optimistic that we can do something about this.

The good news is so many people are taking this very seriously. We have more research on misinformation, more tools at our disposal to fight misinformation, and regulators seem to be taking it more seriously, too.

It’s going to be tough, though, because there are so many sources of misinformation, and it’s spreading so fast. I think our strongest tool is empowering individual Canadians to try to fight misinformation, and the best way they can do that is to not spread it themselves.