There have been over four million deaths resulting from COVID worldwide, including over 34 million cases and more than 610,000 deaths in the United States alone. Worse, we do not appear to be near the end of the pandemic. Recent increases in hospitalizations and deaths from COVID have occurred, mainly in people who are either fully unvaccinated or partially vaccinated. Making this all the more tragic is its preventability; we know that vaccines are still effective against the Delta variant, which is now the predominant strain in the United States of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID.
We are aware that people who are unvaccinated have different reasons and concerns for their decision. Some have medical conditions, for example, that preclude getting immunized; others come from underserved communities and wish to be vaccinated but have limited access.
At the same time, we also know that health misinformation and conspiracy theories about COVID are rampant. They do real damage and endanger public health. They have been linked to a decreased likelihood of following public health advice, such as wearing masks, and can influence health decisions, such as intent to get COVID vaccines.
Many damaging myths about COVID have circulated on social media; for example:
- that the disease can spread by 5G mobile networks (in fact, viruses cannot travel through radio waves or mobile networks);
- that mRNA vaccines can change your DNA (nope, that’s seriously not how they work); and
- that COVID vaccines can negatively affect fertility in women or men (there’s no evidence for this claim).
In this vein, health misinformation can fuel vaccine hesitancy, which the World Health Organization has listed as one of the top 10 threats to global health. That threat becomes very clear and very immediate in the context of COVID. With vaccination programs underway, vaccine hesitancy could threaten the goal of herd immunity, which is key to ending the pandemic.
Organizations including the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) are concerned enough about vaccine hesitancy to specifically address it through funding and advocacy, and the World Health Organization has dubbed the extent of misinformation online an “infodemic.”
There is a very real need to ensure that reliable, evidence-based information is as available, plentiful and accessible as misinformation, and that it travels as quickly online. And that is precisely the reason that the #ScienceUpFirst initiative was born: to provide, support and boost accurate scientific information online to help people make informed health decisions.
CHAMPIONING EVIDENCE-BASED PUBLIC HEALTH
The #ScienceUpFirst project began when public health scholar Timothy Caulfield and Senator Stanley Kutcher of Nova Scotia recruited a Canadian coalition of scientists, communicators and health experts to empower people to work together against misinformation about COVID and COVID vaccines.
The #ScienceUpFirst team is independently represented from an array of Canadian universities and organizations. Operationally, the project is supported by the Canadian Association of Science Centers, COVID-19 Resources Canada and the Health Law Institute at the University of Alberta.
The bilingual campaign uses the online hashtags #ScienceUpFirst and #LaScienceDAbord across social media platforms, including Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and TikTok. In essence, #ScienceUpFirst uses social media to promote and amplify the best available science-based content in an effort to debunk misinformation.
The initial goal of the campaign is to follow evidence-based guidelines to target misinformation and conspiracy theories specifically related to COVID and COVID vaccines. Eventually, the framework will be applied beyond the COVID pandemic to address other types of health- and science-related misinformation—for example, climate change and mental health.
At the social media level, the campaign does two things:
- It seeks out, evaluates and boosts existing, evidence-based content, with the intention of engaging people to help to share and amplify that content on social media. Importantly, this involves efforts to adapt content and ensure that it reflects and speaks to diverse sociodemographic populations.
- It takes information from community partners, followers and other official sources of data to determine the most relevant and timely content that is needed. It then creates scientifically accurate and easily digestible content in a visually appealing way and this content is vetted before it is posted on the campaign’s social media platforms.
DEBUNKING MISINFORMATION WORKS
Addressing misinformation is definitely worth the effort. Research shows that debunking works and can be effective if it is done correctly. This means using evidence-based tactics when crafting a message to counter misinformation. These include but are not limited to: providing the science, using clear and shareable content, referencing trustworthy sources, noting the scientific consensus and its evolution, incorporating narrative and story, leading with facts, being nice and authentic and highlighting gaps in logic and rhetorical devices.
HOW TO PARTICIPATE
The #ScienceUpFirst movement is not passive, but is an ongoing, interactive project designed to engage and inform the public.
There are three ways people can help amplify evidence-based information and debunk misinformation with #ScienceUpFirst:
- Follow @ScienceUpFirst on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and Tik Tok, and engage with and share content using the hashtag #ScienceUpFirst or #LaScienceDAbord.
- Tag @ScienceUpFirst in COVID science-based posts and misinformation posts on all social media channels.
- Visit www.ScienceUpFirst.com to find curated, shareable COVID content and resources from some of our community partners.
The project launched at the end of January, and has since garnered over 40,000 posts by over 30,000 people with a combined following of 260 million social media accounts.
Health professionals and scientists have an ethical responsibility to promote and practice evidence-based patient care and public health. Part of that mission includes calling out and correcting misinformation online via science communication on social media.
While the #ScienceUpFirst campaign is a Canadian initiative, health misinformation and propaganda knows no borders, especially on social media. We welcome and encourage everyone in the United States and worldwide to join us.
This is an opinion and analysis article; the views expressed by the author or authors are not necessarily those of Scientific American.
A modified version of this article was originally published in The Conversation.