Misinformation can be defined as false or misleading information that is spread deliberately or unknowingly. In the digital age, it is easy for information to spread quickly and widely, and this can lead to dangerous consequences.
The spread of misinformation has had a dramatic effect on our social, political, and economic structures.
“Misinformation has become a global problem and a defining issue of our time,” said Alex Himelfarb, PhD, Chair of the Expert Panel at the Council of Canadian Academies (CCA). “The unchecked spread of science and health misinformation leaves individuals and society vulnerable to exploitation and threatens our ability to work together to address shared challenges.”
Political and social leaders can exploit it to manipulate public opinion, while businesses can use it to deceive customers and try to gain an unfair advantage in the market.
Former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill once said, “A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on”.
That is even faster online with social media today.
In addition, misinformation can have serious implications on public health. For example, it has been linked to the spread of false health theories, health scams, and dangerous treatments. In some cases, these can lead to disastrous results, such as a delayed diagnosis or treatment, or even death.
The risk of misinformation is even greater in developing countries, where health systems are not as well developed or regulated as in the West, and where access to reliable information is more limited.
The only way to counter the spread of misinformation is to increase access to reliable information and promote critical thinking. Governments, businesses and individuals must take responsibility for fact-checking and share quality information from verified sources. In addition, we must inform people about the dangers of spreading false information and teach them how to recognize it.
The Council of Canadian Academies (CCA) state, “Misinformation can erode trust in our institutions and distort our policy priorities, delaying action on critical issues such as climate change, according to a new expert panel report. As science and health misinformation becomes increasingly fused with ideology and identity, it contributes to deepening divisions in our society and is taking a real financial and human toll across Canada’s communities and systems”.
Considerable and mounting evidence shows that misinformation has led to illness and death from unsafe interventions and products, vaccine preventable diseases, and a lack of adherence to public health measures, with the most vulnerable populations bearing the greatest burden. The Expert Panel on the Socioeconomic Impacts of Science and Health Misinformation estimates that misinformation cost the Canadian healthcare system at least $300 million during nine months of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2021.
While combatting misinformation is a complex and long-term challenge, the report details several measures that have shown promise. Ensuring that accurate health and science information is widely accessible and is communicated honestly, understandably, and by trusted messengers can help insulate people from misinformation. Identifying, labelling, and debunking misinformation can also be effective, as are measures that better equip individuals to sort through the increasingly complex information environment, particularly the promotion of critical thinking and media and science literacy in school curricula.
“The impacts of misinformation are complex and not always easy to quantify directly, but they have the potential to undermine the advances made to date in science and health,” said Eric M. Meslin, PhD, FRSC, FCAHS, President and CEO of the CCA. “This report explores some of the leading practices for assessing and responding to misinformation that could help to inform approaches to address it.”
Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada asked the CCA to examine the socioeconomic impacts of science and health misinformation and disinformation on the public and public policy in Canada.
Fault Lines details how science and health misinformation spreads and its impacts on individuals, communities, and society. It explores what makes people susceptible to misinformation messaging and how we might use these insights to improve societal resilience. The report includes original modelling work to estimate the health impacts and hospitalization costs associated with COVID‑19 vaccine hesitancy in Canada, and the role misinformation played in contributing to this hesitancy.
Visit www.cca-reports.ca to download the report.