We have known for some time now that misinformation can be dangerous, compromising our health, souring our discourse and poisoning our politics. An important new study confirms that it can also be fatal.
The study, by the Council of Canadian Academies, takes a deep look at the consequences of misinformation during the COVID-19 crisis. It was clear from early on that border controls, lockdowns, masking and other measures were not going to be enough to control the spread of the disease. The virus was just too virulent, too easily transmissible. We were going to need good vaccines, too.
Thanks to an extraordinary, multinational, public-private campaign, we got them in record time. Testing showed that they were safe and remarkably effective. Most Canadians lined up to get their shots. A mountain of evidence and generations of experience had shown them there was nothing to fear. Vaccination has helped control a host of diseases, including polio, smallpox and measles. The World Health Organization says vaccination averts two to three million deaths annually.
But a minority was skeptical, even angry about the mass-vaccination campaign. Misinformation played a big part.
The loopiest stories held that Bill Gates was plotting to use vaccines to implant trackable microchips in millions of people. A related conspiracy theory held that governments were using vaccine mandates to gut the freedom of the individual, reducing citizens to serfs. Subtler voices claimed that authorities bent on spreading vaccination had tried to silence contrary opinions and ignored useful treatment drugs.
Some Canadians bought it. Many declined to be vaccinated. A good number sickened and died. According to the Council of Canadian Academies report: “If those who reported believing COVID-19 is a hoax were vaccinated when they became eligible, over 2.3 million additional people in Canada would have been vaccinated, resulting in roughly 198,000 fewer cases, 13,000 fewer hospitalizations, and 2,800 fewer deaths from COVID-19 between March 1 and November 30, 2021.”
Yes, misinformation kills. The pandemic experience proved it beyond doubt.
Even when the pandemic finally ends, we will be left with a serious problem. Faith in established institutions and sources of knowledge has been eroding. The Internet has become a vector for every form of wild conjecture and crazy story. Political divides are widening and voting rates are declining.
“On an individual level,” says the report, misinformation “can leave us vulnerable to baseless fears, harm from preventable diseases and exploitation by those who promote misinformation for profit or power. On a collective level, it erodes trust, fosters hate, undermines social cohesion and diminishes our capacity for collective action.”
That erosion makes it harder for us to grapple with the challenges that face us. How do you solve a problem if you can’t agree on whether it is even real? How do you have a debate without some minimal agreement on the basic facts?
The council’s report is not all doom and gloom. It notes that most Canadians still follow public-health guidelines and trust scientists to do the right thing. The vast majority of parents believe childhood vaccines are safe.
We are finding ways to counter misinformation. Schools and universities are teaching media literacy. Fact-checking groups are springing up to debunk phony theories. Social-media organizations are getting better at flagging or blocking false and hateful posts.
“The good news is that we have strategies and tools that can help combat the harms of misinformation, strengthen and build trust in our institutions, and boost our ability to recognize and reject the misinformation we encounter,” the report says.
But the threat is real enough. In an anxious age, many of us are looking for certainty and solutions. “Misinformation can satisfy those desires by providing simple answers, uncomplicated villains, miracle cures and reassurances that give us the feeling of control.”
It is a mirage, of course, and a deadly one at that. If we didn’t know it before, we certainly know it now – close to 3,000 deaths later. It is one lesson from COVID-19 that we can’t afford to forget.