U of A health policy expert aims to cure COVID-19 ‘infodemic’

Timothy Caulfield will lead research to assess how false cures and conspiracy theories spread online, and recommend ways to contain potentially harmful bunk.


Misinformation about COVID-19 is spreading as quickly as the pandemic itself, with potentially dangerous consequences when people try unproven therapies or fail to take public health measures seriously, according to health law and policy expert Timothy Caulfield. (Photo: Getty Images)

While scientists around the world scramble to find a vaccine for the novel coronavirus, University of Alberta health policy expert Timothy Caulfield is hot on the trail of a different kind of cure-one that stops what he calls the COVID-19 "infodemic."

Whether it's bogus advice to drink bleach, pound back cocaine and alcohol or use cow urine as a disinfectant, misinformation about the pandemic is spreading as fast as the virus itself, said the host of A User's Guide to Cheating Death on Netflix and author of The Vaccination Picture and Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything?

Caulfield is one of seven U of A researchers to receive funding through the second round of the federal government's Rapid Research Funding Opportunity, created to aid in the battle against COVID-19. So far, 11 U of A research projects have received $5.8 million in grants.

Over the next few months, Caulfield and his team will quickly assess how misinformation around COVID-19 spreads through mainstream and social media, and through search engines such as Google.

"Google really shapes our world," he said. "People plug in 'coronavirus risks' or 'prevention' and what kind of information pops up? Those algorithms matter."

Caulfield's team will analyze dominant themes and types of messages in circulation and determine which are successfully gaining traction "for better or worse," he said.

"Also, what does the evidence say about how we can best respond? A lot of people are frustrated, thinking it's futile to even try to battle it. We want to see if there are tools that work."

The project will unfold in two phases, the first gathering insights to be used immediately-within the next few months-to contain misinformation about COVID-19. It will be followed by a longer-term, evidence-based blueprint for any future event, health-related or otherwise, and a list of government policy suggestions, including recommendations to regulate content on social media giants such as Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp and Google.

"It's easy to say Twitter has to do better, or Facebook or Google have to do better. But remember, you're asking for a private entity to make unilateral decisions," when they really should come top-down from governments, said Caulfield.

His team will include Gordon Pennycook, a behavioural science professor at the University of Regina; Cheryl Peters, an epidemiologist with Alberta Health Services; and Christen Rachul, a health sciences professor at the University of Manitoba.

Beyond causing confusion, misinformation can kill, said Caulfield. Earlier this month, 27 people died in Iran after drinking industrial-grade ethanol and methanol, a rumoured prevention for the virus. An Arizona man died last week after consuming chloroquine phosphate, used to clean fish tanks, which he mistook for hydroxychloroquine, an anti-malaria medication championed by Donald Trump as a COVID-19 treatment.

There are numerous claims made for natural remedies and supplements that are "equally scientifically invalid," said Caulfield, and which may still cause harm even if they don't kill you.

Last week, Alberta talk-radio host Danielle Smith posted a Tweet claiming hydroxychloroquine was 100 per cent effective in curing COVID-19. She quickly pulled the post down, but by then the damage was done, said Caulfield. Even those who consider themselves immune to fake news can still be swayed by it.

"It impacts all of us. We can actually map the impact of mere exposure to illusory truth," he said.

There are also the racist implications of using terms such as "China virus," as well as conspiracy theories claiming the pandemic was either biomedically engineered or hyped for political purposes.

A vital factor in conveying accurate information is public trust in political leaders, health officials and science in general-a quality that has been eroding in Canada over the past few years, said Caulfield.

A recent study showed "a significant drop in Canadians' trust in major institutions, organizations, leaders and many sources of information," said Caulfield. A survey from 2019 showed that 32 per cent of Canadians are skeptical about science and 44 per cent believe scientists are elitist.

However, Caulfield said he's encouraged by the level of public trust he's seen in Canadian health authorities since the pandemic began.

"I've been really impressed with Alberta Health. They've done a really good job. Their website is objective and very matter-of-fact-very science-based. And I think the Public Health Agency of Canada has been terrific.

"I hope we take away from this pandemic an understanding of the value of good science, of trusted institutions, and of the harm misinformation and pseudoscience can have on public discourse."