Lies, Bots, and Coronavirus: Misinformation’s Deadly Impact on Health
By: Brian Byrd, Senior Program Officer, New York State Health Foundation and Joseph Smyser, Chief Executive Officer, Public Good Projects. This article was originally published by Grantmakers in Health on July 17, 2020.
With more than 120,000 people dead, more than 40 million jobs lost, and states of emergency and lockdowns in all 50 states, there is no doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic is an unprecedented public health, economic, and national security crisis all in one.
Misinformation, the circulation of misleading and false information, deepened the crisis by delaying authoritative response to the pandemic by weeks, if not months. Public declarations of misinformation, such as COVID is a hoax, bleach is a COVID cure, wearing a mask increases your chances of getting COVID, caused a delay that cost many American lives. According to a recent study, had the U.S. imposed social distancing one week earlier than it did in March 2020, at least 36,000 fewer people would have died (Pei 2020).
Now, the spread of this same misinformation is upending future COVID-19 vaccination efforts. According to a new poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, only about half of U.S. adults say they would get a COVID-19 vaccine, even though more than 1,000 people still die from the disease every day. Some are concerned about the dangers of rushed science. But according to a poll conducted by Yahoo News/YouGov, more than 25 percent of Americans would decline vaccination in part because they believe Microsoft cofounder Bill Gates is “trying to slip them a microchip.”
Tracking Vaccine Opposition on Social Media
We know social media has been awash in lies, rumors, and distortions about COVID-19 and vaccines, among many other subjects. Research has shown that bots, autonomous programs that can spread spam or a virus over a network like the internet, that operate within social media are accelerating the spread of these lies at light speed. What can health funders do to mitigate misinformation’s impact? The New York State Health Foundation asked that question last year as it confronted the worst measles outbreak in the state in decades. We realized that public health needed to be better informed not only on the facts, but also on the powerful influence of misinformation. So, we partnered with The Public Good Projects (PGP) to create Project VCTR (Vaccine Communication Tracking and Response).
Launched in October 2019, Project VCTR collects publicly available media data from broadcast television, newspapers and magazines, websites and blogs, online video, and numerous social media sites. This data is organized into themes and topics using a combination of machine learning and natural language processing, supervised by a team of public health practitioners trained in data analytics. Project VCTR’s purpose is to track and contextualize vaccine opposition to best inform health organizations and health journalists. It functions much like a disease surveillance system, sending out weekly updates on misinformation trends circulating through media sources. Approximately 150 health organizations currently rely on Project VCTR for this data, and as a result of increasing demand, Project VCTR is making dashboards with geographically-specific information available for each U.S. state by the end of this year.
According to Project VCTR’s data, messages in opposition to vaccines have more than doubled during the COVID-19 pandemic. Since March 2020, these messages have been viewed more than 4.5 billion times.
Misinformation about vaccines was a concern prior to the pandemic. The World Health Organization (WHO) declared vaccine hesitancy, the reluctance or refusal to vaccinate despite the availability of vaccines, one of the ten threats to global health in 2019 (WHO 2019). In the U.S., vaccine confidence has also been steadily declining; the number of Americans who believe parents should vaccinate their children decreased from 94 percent in 2001 to 84 percent in 2020 (Gallup 2020). Misinformation is directly responsible for this decline and is also directly responsible for its real-world outcomes: there were more than 1,200 cases of measles in the U.S. in 2019, despite the fact that the deadly disease was declared eliminated in 2000 (CDC 2020).
COVID-19 and Too Much Information
While it is critically important for public health to monitor and respond to misinformation about vaccines, the pandemic has laid bare an even greater problem. In February 2020, the WHO declared an “infodemic” of false information, meaning that people are facing an overabundance of information that makes it hard for them to find reliable guidance when they need it (WHO 2020). Misinformation, disinformation (misinformation spread with malicious intent), rumors, and conspiracy theories have reached a volume never previously seen.
In March, PGP launched Project RCAID (Rapid Communication, Analysis, Interpretation, and Dissemination) to track misinformation related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Using the same data sources as Project VCTR, Project RCAID found that the scale of the challenge facing public health was dire. In December 2019, publicly available sources of media data provided approximately 150 million messages a week. During the pandemic, those same sources now provide 500 million messages a week for analysis. In December 2019, 5 trillion inference calculations were required to process data a week; now, 25 trillion calculations are required each week.
The Need for Institutionalized Tracking of Misinformation
The U.S. Department of Health & Human Services and its agencies, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), do not currently track misinformation as part of routine operations. Neither do state and local health departments. Such efforts exist within academic institutions, but they are understandably focused on research rather than the real-time situational awareness required for public health. Simply monitoring misinformation is not enough; updates and alerts must be disseminated weekly (Project RCAID does so daily) for health authorities and health communicators to effectively adapt programs and inform the public.
Two high profile examples of RCAID’s utility are its identification of the targeting of Dr. Anthony Fauci by far-right groups and of the vilification of Bill Gates by placing him at the center of a global conspiracy (Alba 2020; Wakabayashi 2020). It was Project RCAID that alerted The New York Times to both these events.
Additional misinformation identified by RCAID, reaching billions of views, includes false information about the uses of the drug hydroxychloroquine, dubious links between 5G and COVID-19, and the leveraging of national protests against structural racism to spread conspiracy theories. Thirty-nine percent of respondents in a recent CDC survey reported engaging in at least one high-risk activity to prevent contracting COVID-19,[i] all encouraged by misinformation.
The powerful influence and damage that misinformation wreaks on our work and the communities we serve cannot be underestimated. As we enter the next phase of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is crucial for health funders to not only support the creation of tools to prevent, detect, and respond to misinformation, but also proactively support access to these tools by our grantees and partners. PGP’s data tracking tool is just one arm of the strategy needed to combat the deadly impact of misinformation. A multidisciplinary approach will be required if we are to successfully counter its insidiousness.
Alba, Davey, Frenkel, Sheera. “Medical expert who corrects Trump is now a target of the Far Right.” New York Times. March 28, 2020.
CDC. “Measles cases and outbreaks.” June 9, 2020.
GALLUP. “Fewer in U.S. continue to see vaccines as important.” January 14, 2020.
Pei, Sen, Sasikiran Kandula, and Jeffrey Shaman. “Differential Effects of Intervention Timing on COVID-19 Spread in the United States.” medRxiv (2020).
Wakabayashi, Daisuke, Alba, Davey, Tracy, Marc. “Bill Gates, at odds with Trump on virus, becomes a Right-Wing target.” New York Times. April 17, 2020.
WHO. “Ten threats to global health in 2019.” 2019.
WHO. “COVID-19 response.” March 31, 2020.