Tackling a tsunami of misinformation and myths
From the belief that drinking tea will protect against COVID-19, to confusion with tragic outcomes, such as poisonings, misunderstanding and hoaxes are common in this time of uncertainty.
doi:10.1038/nindia.2020.103 Published online 3 July 2020
Life as we know it, whether in luxury air-conditioned homes or in over-crowded slums, has been upended. As always, a weaker socioeconomic status makes for poor outcomes, be it access to sanitation and healthcare, or brutal enforcement of lockdown guidelines. Socioeconomic disruption and uncertainty contribute to an environment that breeds myths and hoaxes, which feed on these tremendous psychological vulnerabilities. A myth can offer solace when little else is available and is often adopted without verification.
Nowadays myths spread faster than the coronavirus, on WhatsApp and other digital platforms. In a social media era, rumours appear faster than they can be dispelled, travel faster than fact, and can seem indestructible.
Myths promoting the use of a variety of herbs, formulations and medicines as cures or prophylaxis are widespread. Typically, such myths originate in traditional beliefs with little modern scientific evaluation.
The HoaxBuster team of the Indian Scientists’ Response to COVID-19 (ISRC) said that there is insufficient or no evidence that garlic, tea, applying oil, or steaming, protects against COVID-19. Several herbs are said to boost immunity in general. The ability to ‘boost immunity’ is dependent on the adaptive (acquired) arm of our immune system. We acquire immunity against a specific disease either through getting that disease or through a vaccine.
A person who thinks of ‘boosting immunity’ is probably just seeking good overall health to fight off any disease in general and for this, diet is but one aspect. For most well-nourished people, a regular healthy diet along with exercise and sufficient sleep will do more to promote good health than drinking five cups of tea a day.
The false sense of security provided by unproven remedies can be doubly dangerous because it can sideline the importance of implementing behavioural changes that have been proven to help. Moreover, myths can be exploited by quacks to make money by selling products that are useless if not actually harmful. Even if one judges certain remedies suggested on social media as harmless and decides to follow them, mitigation strategies that are known to work like physical distancing, wearing masks and good hygiene must still be consistently followed.
A second popular group of myths about India’s fight against COVID-19 is that Indians have stronger immunity; the virus will not persist in a hot and humid climate like ours; and the virus in India is weaker. These are particularly attractive since they would mean our outcomes are likely to be much better than the rest of the world.
However, no scientific data suggest that the virus behaves in India or in Indians in unusual ways. The major source of coronavirus is infected people in whose respiratory tract this virus grows and from where it is poised to infect others. It is too early to know what role, if any, temperature plays when a highly infectious new virus is tearing through a population with no current immunity to it. Finally, the sequenced genomes of the virus in India show no features suggesting that it is behaving differently than elsewhere.
Myths in the final group are conspiracy theories that target someone or something as being responsible for COVID-19. The most popular ones are that the virus was created in a lab, that bats spread the virus, and that a particular community spreads the virus.
The virus genome sequence shows no evidence to suggest the virus was created in a lab, so bats, and the trees they nest on should not be disturbed. Zoonosis, a microbe jumping from one species to another, is more likely to occur when we disturb ecosystems leading to greater contact between wild animals and humans.
Finally, singling out communities does little to stop the virus, but much to divide people when what we need is community engagement to fight this pandemic. Blaming specific groups stigmatizes them, and this mindset has even led to discrimination against frontline workers, people we depend on to care for our most seriously ill patients.
We will not contain this epidemic if we ignore either the science, or our humanity.
Several efforts have been made to combat the tsunami of misinformation: the government’s use of the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897 and Disaster Management Act, 2005 to combat fake news, infographics by MyGov, efforts by ISRC, CovidGyan, TNSF and AIPSN. Traditional media outlets have also stepped in to combat these myths. The resources in Indian languages lag behind those in English, but concerted efforts are being made in this direction.
Scientists have unique qualifications to combat misinformation, yet they are often hamstrung by their own training. First, scientists are comfortable with uncertainty and nuance. There is a difference between there being no evidence for a claim, not enough evidence, the claim being likely to be false, and it being false. But such distinctions are not always appreciated by someone who wants to know if turmeric milk works for COVID-19. Does ‘not enough evidence’ mean it works but scientists do not know? Does ‘likely to be false’ come from personal prejudice? A straightforward answer is not easy for a scientist to provide, yet is desired by the public to make a clear decision.
Second, scientific progress is typically slow and measured. Ideas are tested and argued over years, sometimes over decades, before conclusions are drawn. The pandemic has accelerated this process and exposed it to public view. A recent retraction from The Lancet on hydroxychloroquine treatment outcomes exposes several fault lines in doing science under pandemic pressure. Frustration with the normally slow progress of research can lead to rapid publication of results, and withdrawing published research reduces confidence in scientists.
Meanwhile, societies are facing long-term economic and social costs, while scientists have little to offer except masking, handwashing and physical distancing.
Lastly, many scientists hesitate to step outside their areas of expertise, built over several years with the commensurate ability to evaluate the smallest detail. The current pandemic needs expertise in several areas like epidemiology, immunology, medicine, physics and engineering. The amount of time to gain sufficient understanding, when scientists too are struggling like others to keep their personal and professional lives moving, is considerable.
Despite these difficulties, it is well worth the effort for scientists and scientific institutions to invest time in myth-busting.
I found myth-busting an intellectually rewarding process, involving several fierce discussions on data with a diverse group of scientists and science communicators. But I believe there are larger issues at stake. Unless scientists communicate how the research process works, convey complex ideas in a simple manner, and share how current understanding evolves and changes as new information comes in, the public cannot be expected to trust scientific information, or use it to make good personal choices.
The pandemic has shown that science must engage more with society to build trust and has forced some scientists to think about how to communicate the value of science. Not just by advertising the latest cool findings but also by promoting critical thinking, for example by allowing the general public to question and assess information. This is hard, but important if we hope to contribute to and keep the support of society.
All healthy societies have a plurality of opinions and vigorous debates, but debates devoid of data and its critical analyses are flawed, as are debates that do not include a discussion of values which underpin our public policies. Indian scientists and scientists-in-training need greater exposure to and meaningful engagement with the local communities where their institutions are based. I hope we can work with social scientists and lay citizens to foster ways to have an inclusive scientific dialogue.
[*Sandhya P. Koushika volunteers with Indian Scientists' Response to COVID-19 (ISRC) and is a team member of CovidGyan. Views expressed do not necessarily represent those of her employer, TIFR. She thanks Edward Hynes, Susan Parker, Shubha Tole, Jitendra Kumar and Kaushal Verma for comments.]