The proliferation of disinformation and misinformation online over the past few years has become more dangerous with the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic. Dr. Jonathan Stea, a clinical psychologist and an adjunct assistant professor at the University of Calgary, is one of two psychologists invited to join Science Up First, an initiative bringing together experts from every field to combat disinformation online.
Jonathan N. Stea
“That the outbreaks of Spanish influenza, which have given army officials some concern, may have been started by German agents who were put ashore from a submarine, was the belief expressed today by Lieut. Col. Phillip S. Doane, head of the Health and Sanitation Section of the Emergency Fleet Corporation. … 'It is quite possible that the epidemic was started by Huns sent ashore by Boche submarine commanders,’ he said. ‘We know that men have been ashore from German submarine boats, for they have been in New York and other places. It would be quite easy for one of these German agents to turn loose Spanish influenza germs in a theatre or some other place where large numbers of persons are assembled.’” (New York Times, ‘Think influenza came in U-boat’, September 19, 1918).
You can find that story on Page 11 of Dr. Steven Taylor’s book The Psychology of Pandemics: Preparing for the Next Global Outbreak of Infectious Disease. Conspiracy theories are nothing new. Conspiracies surrounding pandemics are nothing new. What has changed is the speed at which they are spread, and the maliciousness with which they are created.
Lieut. Col. Doane may have thought German U-Boat submariners were coming ashore to spread the flu in movie theatres, and his story was told to the New York Times. It was read by New Yorkers who may, or may not, have believed him. The fact that this opinion exists only in archival material and does not persist to this day, is indicative that either few people read it, few of them believed it, or both.
Lieut. Col. Doane’s theory was not posted to an 8-Chan thread, picked up by a Russian bot farm, posted to Facebook by sixty accounts, disseminated by dozens of questionable ‘news’ platforms, discovered by the President of the United States and tweeted to 90 million people, many of whom were eager to believe and spread the rumour.
This is where we live now, where disinformation and falsehoods can spread from one person to millions across the world in the blink of an eye. And in the time of a pandemic, this can be dangerous, destructive, and harmful in more ways than just fighting between friends and family members. It can put whole populations in greater danger than they need to be.
It is for this reason that scientists across Canada have come together to create the #ScienceUpFirst initiative. Dr. Jonathan N. Stea, a clinical psychologist and an adjunct assistant professor at the University of Calgary, is one of two psychologists who were asked to join the team. Along with Dr. Christine Chambers, Dr. Stea is providing his psychological expertise to combatting disinformation online – specifically, for , disinformation about COVID-19 and COVID-19 vaccines.
“It’s an ethical imperative for psychologists to promote evidence-based patient care and public health– so I’ve always been interested in things like pseudoscience and health-related misinformation. Calling that stuff out is one of our ethical imperatives.”
#ScienceUpFirst emerged from conversations between Timothy Caulfield, a professor of health, law, and policy at the University of Alberta, and Senator Stan Kutcher of Nova Scotia. Professor Caulfield has been researching online disinformation and how to debunk it for decades. Senator Kutcher, before becoming a senator, was the Department Head of Psychiatry at Dalhousie University. They got together to assemble a team of science communicators, epidemiologists, chemists, biologists, geneticists, bioethicists, infectious disease experts, and of course psychologists. Dr. Stea says,
“There is a lot that psychology can bring to the table. We’re trained extensively in science, we’re trained in critical thinking, and we’re trained to understand the ways in which we interpret information and the world more generally. I’ve personally applied these skills to communicate to the public through mainstream media channels, such as articles about tackling health-related misinformation, like how to address vaccine hesitancy and how to identify fake science news.”
This coalition of scientists is dedicated to debunking the misinformation that is out there now. They also want to do the same, as quickly as possible, after a new false narrative emerges online. And there are a lot of them – Bill Gates is microchipping you through vaccines, the numbers are being inflated to control people somehow, alternative medicine cures the virus, the list goes on. And on, and on, and on. Add to that the already loud and vocal anti-vaccination movement that predated the pandemic, and it looks like an uphill battle. But it’s one Dr. Stea is ready to wage.
“Science is an ever-evolving process, and sometimes there are disagreements between scientists. I think for the first time, science is being exposed to the public the way it has always been – as an iterative, evolving process. But for people who are unaware of that, sometimes it can be kind of jarring and it can leave people vulnerable to traps of misinformation. You’ll hear anecdotes, or testimonials on Facebook about how vaccines are extremely dangerous or how Bill Gates caused all this or something. And we want to take accurate, science-informed information and amplify that.”
The initiative is not just scientists railing against misinformation, it is designed for regular Canadians, and regular people around the world, to help amplify the message in the name of public health and protecting their communities.
Your brother-in-law posted online that the COVID-19 was engineered in a lab in China. Your former boss is constantly posting memes about the vaccine being unsafe and untested. Hank from high school is pretty convinced the virus itself is a hoax, meant to distract us all from Pizzagate. Go to #ScienceUpFirstFirst.com, the site that’s designed to help you in combatting these conspiracy theories and false information. They’re fully committed to this fight and want to provide you with the tools to join in as well so that you are not railing against misinformation alone.
Dr. Stea’s day job involves providing psychological treatment in a specialized interdisciplinary outpatient clinic for people who present with both substance use and psychiatric disorders. With the pandemic, he and his colleagues have helped people with these conditions adapt and cope with the additional stressful layer of COVID-related anxiety and uncertainty.. Social media, and the conspiracy theories it perpetuates, does not help. And the volume of these things is only increasing. And of course, that’s where Dr. Stea is spending a fair amount of his spare time.
In 1963, Republican Presidential candidate Barry Goldwater refused to distance himself from the John Birch Society, a powerful conservative group claiming that the bulk of the American congress, including President Eisenhower, were communist conspirators. Later the JBS would push the bogus claim that laetrile, a chemical compound found mostly in the seeds of apricots, was a cure for cancer. In 1964, Goldwater was defeated in one of the biggest landslides in American history, and the John Birch Society was forced out of respectable Republican circles
In 2019, Marjorie Taylor Greene voiced support for the theory that the school shooting at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School was a “false flag” attack. She also advanced the conspiracy theory that there was a video – though she hadn’t seen it herself because it does not exist – circulating on the “dark web” of Hillary Clinton cutting off a young girl’s face and wearing it herself as a mask while drinking that young girl’s blood. In November of 2020, Marjorie Taylor Greene was elected to Congress as a Republican Representative from Georgia.
Much of this, of course, stems from Donald Trump who was the biggest source of disinformation and conspiracy theories in the world. Disinformation about COVID-19 is estimated to have declined by 73% on Twitter since Trump had his account disconnected by the platform. And so now may be the perfect time to strike. If genuine science and fact can flood the internet at the same pace as false stories can be spread by trolls, then perhaps we have a chance to stem what the WHO calls a “global infodemic”.
It’s an uphill battle, but it is one that must be waged. Dr. Stea and his colleagues are ready to take it on – and they’re in it for the long haul.