Timothy Caulfield is a Canada Research Chair in Health Law and Policy at the University of Alberta. His latest book is Relax, Dammit! A User’s Guide to the Age of Anxiety.
Over the past year, the public has heard a lot (thankfully) from biomedical researchers, clinicians, science communicators and public-health experts. These voices have moved into the public sphere in an unprecedented manner – they are on social media, on the nightly news and contributing frequently to the popular press. Some are even dancing on TikTok.
In general, this is all very good. We are living through an infodemic – an era when harmful misinformation has resulted in or contributed to an increase in deaths, hospitalizations, stigma, and poor health and science policy. We need more credible, science-informed voices occupying a larger and larger hunk of our information ecosystem.
A growing body of evidence tells us that experts play a vital role in the battle against bunk. In general, the public trusts academics, scientists and health care providers. And studies have consistently shown that efforts to counter misinformation – such as on social media, where much of the noise resides and is distributed – are both needed and can have a real impact, especially if the debunking comes from an expert.
It is no surprise, then, that many have suggested that scientists, academics and health care providers must continue to play a central role in the effort to counter misinformation in the public sphere. Indeed, many of these experts, such as physicians, may even have an ethical obligation to do so. The World Health Organization noted “there is an urgent need for stronger action to manage the infodemic,” which should include co-ordination with health care providers, academics and the broader scientific community. And the public seems to agree. A recent study found that the public likes seeing online corrections of misinformation, broadly endorses the practice and sees it as a public responsibility.
In the past year, I’ve received death threats and have been sued. I’ve been lied about and constantly trolled on social media. And, of course, there is the hate mail. My experience is far from unique. Studies have found that battling misinformation invites trouble. For example, a 2021 study found that nearly one-quarter of physicians reported being personally attacked on social media – and the situation is far worse for women who must also endure misogynistic comments and sexual harassment. Another survey of prominent health communicators found that 91 per cent experience “abusive behaviour,” to the point that 20 per cent felt obligated to seek police or legal advice.
Of course, much as this nasty, and often very public, agitation is done with the specific goal of silencing debunkers – or, at least, causing them to hesitate before engaging. Anti-vaxxers and their ilk will use every possible tactic to stop people, particularly experts, from countering their message. We can’t let them win. We need policies designed to support and encourage academics, health professionals and researchers to engage in public discourse.
Universities and other relevant institutions must recognize and reward these activities. Countering misinformation on social media, for instance, should not be viewed as a frivolous activity to be done off the side of the desk. It can be a tremendously valuable, high-impact and time-consuming form of knowledge translation (yes, even when it involves dancing on TikTok). Public engagement can be a vital part of the job. And it warrants the time, training and resources required to do it well.
Legal support should also be available. While institutions will need to delineate what kind of engagement activities they will cover, fear of being sued should not be a reason for experts to avoid countering misinformation. Institutions should create liability policies that embolden, rather than constrain, public engagement. Err on the side of “we got your back.”
Professional associations and regulatory bodies – such as the colleges of physicians and surgeons – should encourage and support their members who are making efforts to fight misinformation. (Some of these regulators have recently taken steps to tackle the infodemic, including issuing policies on the topic and cautioning members who are spreading inaccurate claims.)
I recognize that many of these recommendations are easier said than done. Not all public outreach activities are created equal. (Indeed, commentary from academics at respected institutions fuelled some of the misinformation about COVID). Determining what type of engagement warrants support and encouragement can be complicated. The goal should not be to stifle genuine academic debate. Still, given the clear value of having experts in the public sphere, more must be done to ensure that these voices remain in the mix.
Given my career path (I have spent a lot of time debunking!), this may seem like self-serving plea. But I’ve been at this a while. My skin is thick. I’m used to the hate. This is really about drawing in more – and, importantly, a diverse range – of expert voices and making them feel comfortable, appreciated and supported. We must have experts with a deep knowledge of the relevant topics willing to counter the sea of misinformation churning through popular culture. If not well-informed experts, then who?
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