In olden times, it was fairly easy to identify the sources of misinformation and cultural ignorance: They were either commercial entities that profited from misleading the public, such as tobacco companies, or conspiracy theorists and other inhabitants of the lunatic fringe.
“When it comes to misinformation, I normally tell people not to trust information unless it comes from a trusted source,” says Mark Dredze, an expert at Johns Hopkins University on how health-related misinformation and disinformation spread via social media.
“Don’t take your health information from random websites and don’t take any medication without talking to your doctor.
Trump’s public discussion about injecting disinfectant to kill the coronavirus inside the body alarmed the entire health care establishment and even prompted the makers of Lysol and Clorox to issue consumer warnings against ingesting or using their products internally in any way
“But how do you tell people to trust the federal government, but don’t pay attention to the president of the United States?”
That’s the question posed by a paper by Dredze and collaborators from Harvard, Oxford and UC San Diego published by the Journal of the American Medical Association.
Spike in Google searches
The authors studied Google searches seeking information on how to buy chloroquine or hydroxychloroquine, the drugs touted by high-tech entrepreneur Elon Musk and Donald Trump as possible treatments for COVID-19, the coronavirus-caused pandemic.
They found that immediately after Musk and Trump began promoting the drugs as effective treatments for COVID-19, searches for purchasing information soared.
Even after news reports surfaced of a fatal chloroquine poisoning, searches remained elevated — more than 200% higher than the pre-COVID period for chloroquine, and 1,167% higher for the related drug hydroxychloroquine.
The lesson is that in times of public health crises, therapies not supported by adequate evidence should not be touted by public figures.
Those words need to be reinforced consistently in the current crisis, when the loudest megaphone in the country is in the hands of Trump, a repeat violator of the principle.
Indeed, Trump’s public discussion about injecting disinfectant to kill the coronavirus inside the body alarmed the entire health care establishment and even prompted the makers of Lysol and Clorox to issue consumer warnings against ingesting or using their products internally in any way.
Rapidly spreading misinformation
Misinformation spreads rapidly, especially in a time of great fear. That’s always been true, from the burning of witches on up to hydroxychloroquine. When people are faced with a crisis, they become desperate.
The tobacco industry knew that cigarettes caused cancer, and they knew with their immense resources they could get journalists to say there’s two sides to every story, that we need more research.
Their genius was to fund immunology and genetics and genomics, all to give the impression that something besides cigarettes was causing cancer. It was really an obfuscation campaign to hide the truth.
But that’s different from what’s coming from the White House. “Even to call Trump’s thing ‘misinformation’ is odd,” Robert N. Proctor, a professor of the history of science at Stanford, says, “because in what way is it information at all? It’s more like ‘mis-speculation.’ He’s just kind of talking out loud. He’s not providing evidence.”
Unlike the tobacco industry, he says, “I don’t think Trump is deliberately trying to fool anybody. He’s just ignorant.”
Still, ignorance issuing from such a high level produces entirely new challenges for anyone trying to keep the public from being misled. The threat is not only to the public’s understanding but also to the trust in the government itself.
The bully pulpit
The US president commands national attention, he can bring important information to people. What we see here is that the bully pulpit is being used to convey conspiracy theories, medical misinformation, and information that’s flat-out dangerous and that sucks up time and attention from other important issues. This is really unprecedented.
Meanwhile, the dearth of hard information about the epidemiology of the disease has created a vacuum that has been filled by pseudoscience wearing the mantle of expertise.
Medical doctors have claimed to have found effective treatments for COVID-19 or come to unwarranted conclusions about its prevalence or lethality rates based on dubious evidence.
Fighting the tide of misinformation and ignorance may never have been harder. Ayers points out that Google has placed an information box on search pages for “coronavirus” that directs users to information about symptoms, testing, prevention and other issues, though it doesn’t do so on search results for chloroquine.
Government health officials could aggressively contradict Trump’s musings about COVID-19 cures, but some have been loath to do so, given his mercurial nature.
By applying political pressure to federal science agencies, moreover, the Trump administration has undermined their position as trusted sources.
The Food and Drug Administration, which is tasked with overseeing the safety and efficacy of drugs, issued an exceedingly rare emergency use authorisation for prescriptions of chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine, a step likely to be interpreted by laypersons as an endorsement, and one it would probably not have taken if Trump hadn’t turned the drugs into his personal hobby horses.
To date, clinical trials across the world have failed to validate them as treatments for COVID-19.
Debunking misconceptions about COVID-19 or purported treatments is tricky. The fundamental problem is that our inundation by information of all sorts coming through social media has fuelled the adage that “a lie can go halfway around the world before the truth can get its boots on” with steroids.
Michael Hiltzik is a noted columnist and writer