If you have you logged in to Facebook or Twitter, a pandemic conspiracy theory likely sits at the top of the feed. A friend posted a secret cure or revealed a government cover-up. Fear and panic fill our social media feeds. Falsehoods, hoaxes, and genuine misconceptions mix seamlessly with scientifically-validated actionable content.
People do not know what to believe anymore.
The viral spread of unproven falsehoods and hoaxes are toxic for doctors and nurses. The popular internet meme of the day becomes the patients’ fears we face the next day in the office.
Click-bait headlines take us to untrustworthy news sites. Some people do not take COVID-19 recommendations seriously and share misinformation unintentionally. Others promote false and inaccurate information with harmful intentions.
Doctors fight two pandemics- the virus and misinformation
Each Instagram image of maskless masses on crowded beaches or groups enjoying margarita’s on a patio is another gut punch to healthcare workers.
The world’s leading scientists are spending time, energy, and resources fighting the pandemic while also discrediting toxic online misinformation. The World Health Organization had to create a Coronavirus Mythbusters page to help put these Covid-19 conspiracies to rest. Among the battles they are fighting are:
Unscrupulous doctors lend credibility to conspiracies
Scientists learn more and more each day about the novel SARS-CoV-2. While there is a lot we do not yet know, we do know 5G cell phone towers do not spread coronavirus.<
A doctor floated the cell tower theory in the Belgian newspaper Het Laatste Nieuws. Although the website withdrew the story, the conspiracy spread faster than a California wildfire.
Millions of people watched the passionate plea of Dr. Stella Immanuel promoting hydroxychloroquine before Youtube removed the video. This Houston doctor, known for her belief in demon-possed sperm and alien DNA, was standing outside a hospital flanked by a team of authoritative white-coated physicians.
This outdoor setting was the first dead give-away of the hoax. No Texan would stand outside in the summer heat wearing a coat.
Two physician owners of a California Urgent Care Center posted a widely circulated video downplaying the risk of COVID-19. Youtube removed the misleading video, and the American College of Emergency Physicians and the American Academy of Emergency Medicine issued a joint statement against physician misinformation.
The day the conspiracy Plandemic video was released, every doctor I know received multiple text messages asking our thoughts. Dr. Zubin Damania AKA ZDOG MD’s response was better than any commentary I could possibly provide:
Social media networks and Youtube removed all of the above examples, but not before the misinformation spread worldwide.
Politicians exploit science for political gain
Politicians endorsed hydroxychloroquine when not supported by validated scientific evidence. The FDA released a statement regarding the potential danger of using the drug outside of the hospital setting or in clinical trials.
But despite scientific evidence, the proverbial cat was already out of the bag. Doctors still deal with hydroxychloroquine questions daily.
Some politicians continue to disregard mitigation strategies such as mask compliance and social distancing. On September 13th, a Nevada indoor campaign rally ignored recommendations placing thousands at risk. Videos of the maskless attendees bragging about not wearing a mask and their lack of fearing the virus were shared all over the internet.
Sharing false social media content leads to lost lives. NYC Poison Control calls for bleach and Lysol doubled after President Trump promoted home cleaning agents’ curative effects.
Lysol issued a warning not to inject or ingest disinfectants. The World Health Organization created a public service announcement warning people of bleach drinking risks. These risk reductions efforts were too late as the President’s message went viral on social media.
Many still believe coronavirus is just like the flu. The Woodward tapes show even President Trump knew this was false when he stated Covid-19 was “five times more lethal than the flu. It’s also more deadly than your — you know, your, even your strenuous flu.”
The Tapes Show Trump Knew About Covid-19 and Did Not Care
Our President downplayed the virus and put us all at risk
Other opportunists fan the flames
Televangelists like Jim Baker exploit fear by peddling snake oil. His Silver Solution was promoted by a natural health expert stating, “It totally eliminates it. Kills it. Deactivates it.” Then, the state of Missouri filed a lawsuit to stop Baker selling false treatments for the coronavirus.
The general public sees these stories. We all want a cure, a vaccine, or a therapeutic to get our lives back. These stories spread online like wildfire.
Flames continue to spark by the claim children do not catch Covid-19. Data from the Coronavirus in Kids Project indicate this claim is false. 656,818 childhood COVID-19 cases have been identified, and modeling suggests a total of 3,171,429 pediatric infections as of September 14th.
Many doctors were confronted with CDC “evidence” indicating only 6% of all pandemic record deaths recorded actually died from Covid-19. This post originated in a QAnon Tweet, removed by Twitter, but not before being retweeted by our President to his 85.9 million followers.
The problem with the 6% theory is the CDC reported something completely different. The CDC reported in 6% of reported Covid-19 deaths, no other comorbidities were listed. The other 94% still died of the virus but also had conditions such as diabetes or hypertension.
How can health professions deal with social media?
Doctors must be prepared to address these dangerous online falsehoods. This means we must stay engaged online to spot the trends, hoaxes, and falsehoods.
Physicians can lean into rule number one, primum non-nocere — first do no harm. We have a societal responsibility to provide scientific and validated care when using social media sites.
We can call-out colleagues promoting irresponsible content. We can also share information responsibly and cautiously. health providers must verify source documentation before spreading online information.
Many physicians share helpful content through social media channels. Dr. Jason Campbell has promoted incredibly creative content on TikTok. Many experience share and receive support through physician and nurse-only Facebook groups. Physicians use blogging sites and Op-Eds to share information.
Our Obgyn practice utilizes a weekly patient email newsletter and an innovative text messaging system to promote healthy behavior and update our patients on evolving Covid-19 guidelines.
As the pandemic wears on, social media toxicity is likely to continue. Each health provider has a unique opportunity to help spread science faster than the virus.