COMMENTARY

Docs Fight Back Against COVID Conspiracy Theories

Ranit Mishori, MD, MHS

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August 05, 2020

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Last week, a self-branded collection of "America's Frontline Doctors" held a "White Coat Summit" in front of the US Supreme Court building. In their telling, they came to address a "massive disinformation campaign" around COVID-19. They touted the miracle powers of hydroxychloroquine, contested the importance of masks, and pushed for a broader reopening of the economy.

While their farcical claims are easily dismissed by medical professionals, the effect of their pseudoscience on the public is nothing to scoff at. Amplified by President Trump's retweets and press briefing comments, the video of the "Summit" accrued millions of views before Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube took it down. Stella Immanuel, a Texas-based doctor who spoke at the press conference (and who holds other baseless and radical views about medicine), declared hydroxychloroquine the "cure for COVID-19." The ensuing media spectacle elevated her anti-scientific views to countless people. Even pop star Madonna weighed in to her 15 million–plus followers on Instagram, proclaiming that Immanuel was a "hero" and that "some people don't want to hear the truth" about COVID-19.

As others have pointed out, this frightening pandemic is accompanied by a potent and virulent "infodemic." In an era when factless ideas ricochet and trend around the world before medical organizations and professionals can address them, we've seen an unprecedented embrace of previously fringe attitudes.

Plandemic , a conspiracy theory–laden documentary anchored by discredited virologist Judy Mikovits, continues to reach millions of viewers online.

These types of ungrounded beliefs are not outliers or aberrations. We cannot dismiss them. Rather, the health and scientific community must recognize that they resonate with a significant and dauntingly large swath of the public.

For example, according to a June poll from the Pew Research Center survey, 25% of Americans believe that the COVID-19 pandemic was definitely or probably "intentionally planned by powerful people." Some 71% of them say they encountered this conspiracy theory online.

In the face of robust evidence and extensive data debunking the effectiveness of hydroxychloroquine as a COVID-19 treatment, 26% of Americans say they support President Trump in his efforts to promote the unproven drug.

Polls about wearing masks in public reveal persistent divisions between demographic and partisan groups, even as some late-adopting government officials have finally embraced pro-mask messaging and behaviors.

As The Atlantic's Ed Yong wrote in a masterful catalog of the country's COVID-19 failures: "Like pandemics, infodemics quickly become uncontrollable unless caught early. But while health organizations recognize the need to surveil for emerging diseases, they are woefully unprepared to do the same for emerging conspiracies."

So, What Do We Do?

The process must begin with recognizing that we are past the point where the problem can be ignored. These false narratives require active countering and correction, whether they emerge from TikTok or from health professionals or from the President of the United States.

We must keep track of what's being said, where this disinformation is found, and what audiences are being reached. Such work is largely the domain of researchers, including possibly "info-demiologists" and experts in communications and social media virality.

But what about the rest of us healthcare workers, especially those of us active on social media?

I don't see calls to de-license the physicians spreading misinformation as a solution. That would only create martyrs for the wrong cause and detract energy from the real purpose, which is persuading the public to listen to and trust the science that will help keep them alive. For that reason, social media's shaming reflex — calling people ignorant or stupid for the views they hold — is one that any healthcare professional should resist, if for no other reason than that the research shows that such approaches are rarely persuasive.

Instead, we need to be relentless in setting the record straight. Rebut the myths. Explain the evidence. Simply state the facts. And we need to do this in an overt spirit of genuine concern — not "I can't believe you won't listen to science!" but instead "I am worried about you getting the wrong information, because I want you healthy and well."

It is important to make concerted efforts to elevate the voices of experts, and while doing so, drown the noise of those who make false claims. In other words, get them "ratioed."

And if you don't have the energy or time to engage with the person posting the misinformation, there is yet another resort: Alert administrators of the social media platforms where these myths abound about the propagation of dangerous non-facts on their sites, and explain why they are dangerous.

When groups like "America's Frontline Doctors" masquerade as legitimate and trustworthy sources of medical information, it does considerable harm to the rest of us. It hurts the reputation of bona fide experts and further confuses the public about whom to trust in a time of crisis. Just one discredited doctor who goes viral with bogus claims can reverse the hard work of countless health providers who act on evidence.

Emotion-inducing, sham content gains traction on social media platforms that reward "engagement" with more visibility. It makes all of our work harder.

As we surpass 155,000 COVID-19 deaths with no containment in sight, it is simply not enough for doctors and scientists to not behave like a Judy Mikovits or a Stella Immanuel. Rather than sitting on the sidelines, health professionals must proactively participate to stem the tide of COVID-19 misinformation and support accurate, ethical, science-based ideas and behaviors.

To truly care for our patients, we must ensure that they receive reliable, trustworthy, and sound medical guidance, whether in our clinics, online chat rooms, billboards, or on TikTok.

Lives are at stake.

Ranit Mishori, MD, MHS, is professor of family medicine at Georgetown University School of Medicine. She is a senior medical advisor Physicians for Human Rights. Follow her on Twitter.

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