Online Misinformation Obstacle to Effective COVID-19 Response, Eshoo Says

January 26, 2021 by Victoria Turner

Public health agencies need to implement a more strategic, unified approach in communicating public health information online on the novel coronavirus and social platforms should “amplify” it, said Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., kicking off the 17th Annual State of the Net Conference.

Delivering the opening keynote at the virtual, two-day event hosted by the Internet Education Foundation, Eshoo, the first woman to serve as chair of the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on health, pointed to the spread of misinformation surrounding the virus as one of the main obstacles the new administration is facing.

“Since the beginning of the pandemic, we [have] seen a proliferation of conspiracies on the origins of the virus, criminal efforts to sell scam treatments, foreign efforts to undermine trust in our institutions and a sustained effort by the former president to spread disinformation. Clearly, misinformation about the COVID vaccine hinders our pandemic response,” Eshoo said, adding that the prior administration “lacked a clear plan to vaccinate American efficiently, equitably and effectively.”

Evidence shows how this “infodemic” – the copious amounts of accurate and inaccurate information simultaneously disseminated on COVID-19 – has already hindered the efforts to mitigate the pandemic, Eshoo said, pointing to the refusal of over half of Ohio’s nursing home staff to take the vaccine due to misinformation they are receiving through their social media accounts. Around 27% to 39% of those surveyed in a nationwide poll said they would also be hesitant on receiving the vaccine, she added.

While commending social media platforms for “evolving” their efforts to combat misinformation, Eshoo noted merely removing it was not enough.

“Social media platforms should be far more aggressive in removing accounts of repeat offenders and stop purveyors of anti-vaccination content from profiting from harmful posts,” she said, adding that public agencies from federal to local levels should work together with social media influencers in modeling good behavior such as wearing a mask, social distancing and receiving the vaccine.

A key factor leading to online misinformation, Eshoo pointed out, is the algorithmic amplification implemented by the online platforms that decides the hierarchy of content distribution on their sites. According to Eshoo, these artificial boosts disseminate more content that is “emotion-inducing over what [is] true.”

“The [algorithmic] model creates radicalization pathways or rabbit holes of conspiracies and it keeps users within echo chambers that reinforce biases rooted in anger, anxiety and fear,” she said, adding that the “long-term solution to this problem must involve reconsidering the role of algorithmic amplification, product design and legal liability.”

This is not the first time Eshoo has voiced concern over the “infodemic.” Along with five other lawmakers, she sent a letter on Dec. 10 to then President-elect Joe Biden urging the incoming administration’s COVID-19 task force to tackle the misinformation surrounding the virus, which as of recently has claimed over 400,000 American lives.

“The COVID-19 infodemic is about to dangerously intersect with a misinformation-laden anti-vaccine movement that has led to tragic consequences in our country… A decade of misinformation on the safety and efficacy of vaccines, propelled in recent years by social media platforms, has laid the foundation for skepticism and opposition towards the COVID-19 vaccines,” the lawmakers wrote.

President Biden’s plan, in comparison to his predecessor’s, involves a unified, nationwide strategy that is a “science and evidence-based plan to crush the virus,” Eshoo said, pointing out the health subcommittee is working closely with the administration to reach its goal of 100 million vaccines in 100 days.

On Jan. 21, as previously reported by The Well News, Biden released his plan to combat the pandemic. The plan, entitled ‘National Strategy for COVID-19 Response and Pandemic Preparedness,” included 10 executive orders mitigating the virus, retaining the country’s membership in the World Health Organization, as well as detailing a more unified approach in the nation’s response to the current health crisis.

In the short term, efforts need to be focused on stopping the spread of misinformation and “amplify authoritative voices,” she said.

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