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Oct 26, 2021

Some of the earliest documented instances of health misinformation occurred as early as the 1930s. So it’s not as recent of a phenomenon as you may think. Obviously, social media has made the speed and prevalence of health misinformation and disinformation much worse.

It started with cancer misinformation, but now we are dealing with vaccine misinformation and of course, the battle field is social media.

All of the medical and technological advances we have made as a first world country don’t make a difference if we can’t overcome the health disinformation that is prevalent on social media.

Today’s guest is Dr. Tara Sell. Dr. Sell is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Environmental Health and Engineering and a Senior Associate at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. She conducts research to develop a greater understanding of potentially large-scale health events such as disease outbreaks, bioterrorism, natural disasters, or radiological/nuclear events. 

Dr. Sell’s work focuses on improving public health policy and practice in order to reduce the health impacts of disasters and terrorism. She works on qualitative and quantitative research analyses and uses this research to assist in the development of strategy and policy recommendations. Her primary research interests include biosecurity and biodefense, public health preparedness, emerging infectious disease, federal funding and budgeting, and nuclear preparedness policy and practice. She also serves as an Associate Editor of the peer-reviewed journal Health Security (formerly Biosecurity and Bioterrorism).

How to Discern the Truth

Determining how true information that you share on social media is can be confusing. Disinformation is designed to look like accurate information and is more easily shareable that you realize.

As a society, we have to do 2 things:

  1. We need to hold policy makers accountable to the truth and to come up with solutions to address the disinformation.
  2. We have to have a national strategy that controls the spread and sources of misinformation and a system to promote good information, increase public resiliency to misinformation and bring all of the stakeholders together.

Identifying Misinformation Needs to be a Top Priority

Misinformation is intentionally designed to play on your emotions, and be so compelling that you will also want to share it.

We need to have a unified effort to show people the tactics that are being used to make us an unwitting accomplice in the spread of misinformation.

There are online fact checking tools that simply aren’t used enough. Additionally, when misinformation is prevalent, there isn’t a cohesive strategy to help us share the truth as a countermeasure to the misinformation.

Better digital literacy will go a long way in helping combat misinformation.

Government Skepticism

One thing that is hindering the adoption of the safe and effective vaccines, is the general distrust of the government. It’s not good for the government to be playing the role as the arbiter of truth in these situations.

The government needs to be more transparent and bring together different agencies and address misinformation from a public health perspective, but it also needs to bleed into the national security side of government. 

We need a national strategy to confront health misinformation across the spectrum, so that it can more easily be identified and stamped out.

Being Caught In the Middle With Friends and Family

Many people are dreading the potential confrontations that may happen at the Thanksgiving table over the medical misinformation on the different sides of the political arguments.

If you find yourself in this situation, Tara advises:

  1. Engage respectfully. No one will be convinced of the truth if they are dismissed or ridiculed.
  2. Connect over shared values. Everyone wants their children and their families to be safe.
  3. Talk about the tactics used to spread misinformation and your experience with it.
  4. Discuss alternative explanations for the conspiracy theories and use information sources that people will accept.
  5. Provide trusted sources for information that are not the CDC or WHO since they have become targets. Use Johns Hopkins or other reputable medical sources. Enlist the help of trusted family members.

The High Cost of Misinformation

Tara’s organization did an analysis of what the actual misinformation is costing us, as medical misinformation has been declared a public health emergency.

If 5% of non-vaccination is caused by medical misinformation, that leads to a cost of $50M in harm each day of a non-Delta surge environment. It would be even bigger during the Delta surge or if that non-vaccination number due to misinformation is higher. 

If it’s 30% then that number increases to a cost of $300M dollars per day.

Who Is It Costing?

The cost of misinformation is spread out across sectors, but where ever there are people bearing more of the burden for misinformation, the associated costs are also concentrated there.

What Can You Do?

We have to face the fact that health related misinformation is going to be with us for a while. We aren’t just going to be done with it when the pandemic is over. New targets will emerge.

We have to make investments in solutions for health misinformation. We have to work on our own resilience. Encourage friends and family to be more resilient to misinformation as well.



Connect with Tara on Twitter @skirkell

Chamber of Progress Website

Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health