How do you convince people to take measures against the spread of COVID-19 when they dismiss it as "just a flu?"
What about convincing them to accept a vaccine they believe is redundant, dangerous or both?
Fake news is proving a serious barrier between government messaging about the COVID-19 pandemic and Manitobans taking action.
It’s something the government has dealt without throughout the pandemic, said Dr. Jazz Atwal, the province’s acting deputy chief provincial public health officer, during Friday’s media briefing.
"I think people should open their eyes," he said, encouraging Manitobans to "seek out really important, good information from trusted individuals."
"Go to health professionals who trained for years and years to learn what they are telling you about COVID-19," he said. "Seek out the truth, seek out that information."
The problem is, this is exactly what those who share fake news stories believe they’re doing.
This reporter reached out to several local people this past week who believe mistruths about COVID-19.
They were informed from the start this story would be about "fake news," and they were bluntly debated via email, messages and emails.
Those who responded include people across the spectrum, from those who don’t believe COVID-19 is real to those with targeted criticisms fuelled by misinformation.
Many of the views and the people they cite are discredited by the broader medical and/or scientific communities and the alleged facts they state have been deemed equally false, according to the latest information affirmed by sources deemed reputable.
The Sun has decided to not name the fake news proponents. In most cases, it was upon their request, and in one case it was because they did not return requests for an interview.
In a video posted publicly to social media recently, a Brandon-based personal trainer opens by stating she wanted to get something off her chest.
"When we’re watching mainstream television, the government is telling you the only answer to prevent you from getting sick is to get the COVID vaccine. Well, that’s a bunch of bull crap," she said.
Natural medicines and supplements can also help prevent you from getting COVID-19, she said, adding the government doesn’t tell you this because "there’s no money in that for them."
"The money is all in this very dangerous vaccine where people are dying, people are suffering long-term side effects," she said. You’re not going to be seeing that on mainstream media — it is going to be seen in other sources, you just have to look for it. You just need to do your research."
Rather than talk to a doctor, she encourages people to talk to a naturopath.
"They’re going to guide you in the right direction," she said.
The Sun reached out to the personal trainer by phone and social media but did not receive a response by Sunday’s deadline.
Similar anti-vaccine sentiment has been shared elsewhere on social media, including The Brandon Sun’s Facebook page, where a commenter alluded to the idea Manitobans are dying as a result of the COVID-19 vaccine.
The Sun reached out to her to learn the source of her anti-vaccine sentiment. Among them was anti-vaccine activist Dr. Sherri Tenpenny, whose claims of adverse effects related to the mRNA COVID-19 vaccines were dismissed as false by online fact-checker snopes.com.
McGill University’s Office for Science and Society names Tenpenny as one of "The Disinformation Dozen" generating two-thirds of anti-vaccination content on Facebook and Twitter.
Another anti-vaccine advocate who corresponded with the Sun said she has concerns about the vaccine and thought it unfair she be labelled a "conspiracy theorist," which she said those who "don’t go along with the narrative of getting the shot" are called.
"Some top medical professionals are saying don’t get (the vaccine)," she cautioned, pointing to Pfizer scientist Michael Yeadon, who claimed in an October blog post there’s no point in getting vaccinated since the pandemic was effectively over.
Fact-checker website PolitiFact clarified Yeadon hasn’t worked for Pfizer in nine years and that his claims are incorrect.
She also pointed to a video of a speech by Boise, Idaho, physician Dr. Ryan Cole, whose comments on the vaccine were declared false by his peers.
Another "top medical professional" she cited was Dr. Simone Gold — a member of American’s Frontline Doctors, a group whose viral video about the COVID-19 vaccine was pulled from social media companies for pushing misinformation last summer.
The group claimed anti-malaria drug hydroxychloroquine was a COVID cure, which the World Health Organization clarified "has little to no impact on illness, hospitalization, or death."
She also cited the story of a Swedish woman who died in March as a result of symptoms from the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine — which is true, according to reputable news outlets such as reuters.com and CTV.
Rather than calling this an extremely rare death given how many people have received a dose, she claimed thousands have died as a result of the vaccine, citing information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In reality, the agency reported 3,005 deaths from Dec. 14, 2020, to April 12 among those to receive 189 million doses administered in the United States during that timeframe.
Although the agency clarified they would continue to investigate, "A review of available clinical information including death certificates, autopsy, and medical records revealed no evidence that vaccination contributed to patient deaths."
Similarly, the Winnipeg Sun reported last week that 10 Manitobans have died after receiving a dose of vaccine. There’s no reported link to the vaccine as being a cause.
FAKE NEWS ON SOCIAL MEDIA
Fake news is spread easily on social media, where misinformation is known to find its legs.
"It’s a pretty scary thing when you can see it virtually manifest itself in front of your eyes," Charles Tweed said.
Tweed, a former Sun employee, owns Tweedia, a Westman-based social media marketing and education company.
From what he has seen, social media education is much needed in Westman.
"It’s still in its infancy, so everyone’s still learning to a certain degree about etiquette and what it will look like moving forward," he said.
"People are still really bad at understanding what a real news site is and what is opinion."
Fake news tends to get more eyeballs, and therefore advertising revenue on social media. As such, he said platforms such as Facebook are formatted to incentivize the spread of fake news posts.
While he said some people are approaching these fake news stories from a place of ignorance, others are using it as a political tool to further whatever cause they support.
"We have a natural propensity to conspiracy theories — the unknown. It’s just always amazing to me what people will believe," he said.
"They don’t understand how science works, how scientists talk and don’t talk in 100 per cent sureties ever because they understand there’s room for error or change."
Even outside of the pandemic, Tweed said online falsehoods have real-life consequences.
Online reviews, for example, can be written by anyone, with zero fact checking required.
This much became clear when someone wrote a review for a local business that complained about exorbitant prices for coffee and breakfast, when the business in question didn’t sell these products.
A belief in fake news is at least partly the result of some people’s inherent mistrust in "the system," which can go back decades and makes them feel isolated from broader society.
So described Kiran Nazish, who in addition to serving as Brandon University’s Stanley Knowles Distinguished Visiting Professor has built a career in journalism as a foreign correspondent.
She is also the founding director of the global Coalition For Women in Journalism, which mentors and supports women in the field.
Journalists in the field have faced pushback from the believers of fake news around the world throughout not only the pandemic, but also times of political strife and government disinformation campaigns.
The pandemic has exasperated things.
"I think that there’s a mistrust in the system and it’s hitting personally to so many people," she said. "It’s been over a year, and (the pandemic has) closed down so many businesses, the government’s financial aid has many, many failures, so it’s affecting people directly."
This distrust in the system pushes people to pursue alternative news sources. Their belief of these often false narratives further isolates them, and Nazish said the government isn’t doing enough to reach out to them.
Late last year, Premier Brian Pallister said anti-mask protesters would feel the "consequence of stupidity" in rising infection levels, and declared, "If you don’t think COVID is real, you’re an idiot."
"Our politicians think they can talk to people … like that?" Nazish said. "This is what’s causing this feeling of isolation."
Her advice is to avoid confrontational language, which can spark a fight-or-flight response.
"When you reject somebody, they get into fight or flight, and they would then come back stronger … so you have to acknowledge them.
"You have to talk to them in their language. … I think it’s a huge problem when the government doesn’t think like that — they need to communicate with the people."
During Friday’s media briefing, Atwal refrained from potentially belittling language and spoke bluntly of the pandemic’s realities when asked about the impact of fake news.
"When we’re looking at evidence from around the world, we have scientists from all around the world who discuss the impacts of COVID-19," he said. "We have visuals all around the world."
For those in Manitoba who may not be able to see the inside of a hospital, he said the province has provided footage "to show you the impacts of COVID-19."
"I’m not too sure how much clearer we can make it from a public health perspective on the realness of COVID-19 and the impacts on the system," he said, listing a number of real-life COVID-related impacts to the health-care sector.
"Everyone can probably tell you a story now about how COVID-19 has impacted them directly or indirectly," he said. "Seek out the truth, seek out that information."
DIFFICULT TO PERSUADE
"Oh my God, I have a lot to say about my own family — specifically, my parents," a man affected by fake news told the Sun by phone Saturday, offering a "doozie."
The man relayed that his parents in Saskatchewan are adamant fans of fake news outlets and don’t believe the coronavirus is as deadly as it is.
They keep wanting to break the rules and travel into Manitoba to visit their granddaughter, he said, an idea he has rejected.
"They think rules don’t apply to them because of what they’re reading online," he said.
Being around them is difficult, he said, adding their vehement belief in falsehoods is "aggressive."
He tries not to talk about politics when he sees them, but the effort consistently proves futile.
"My dad is so angry about how different things are and how things are changing," he said.
"That kind of desperation leads people to echo chambers, and some of those echo chambers are places like Rebel Media and Breitbart and InfoWars."
Tweed also discussed "echo chambers," in that social media has cultured an environment in which people see the news — or, in this case fake news — they wish to see.
It becomes, Tweed said, "a self-fulfilling feedback that works to reinforce these people’s confirmation bias."
The man contending with fake news-loving parents said it has come to a point where, although he knows what his parents are saying is false, he’s unable to say anything about it for fear of enflaming them.
"I thought I could tolerate them because they’re my family, but I realize now that you don’t have an obligation to try and help those people if they don’t want help."
As such, he has decided to cut them out of his life.
"They’re beyond help or reason — it’s defeating."
Although it can be difficult to persuade people away from fake news, it’s not impossible.
One woman who contacted the Sun said she spent the better part of the pandemic not believing COVID-19 was a real illness — an opinion she said was supported by her church community.
The conspiracy theories associated with the pandemic stressed her out and gave her severe enough anxiety to have her seek medical help.
After speaking with counsellors about it, she said she has learned to accept the reality of COVID-19.
She has shed her previous COVID-denying friend group and said she’s better off for it.
"Fake news, to me, is trying to drive people to fear," she said. "I was living in fear, I couldn’t sleep and I was binge-eating and having a lot of nightmares."
NO CLEAR END IN SIGHT
There’s no clear end in sight when it comes to the impacts of fake news on the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic.
On Saturday, hundreds of people gathered at The Forks in Winnipeg to protest the province’s health orders — a potential superspreader event in defiance of a public health order limiting outdoor group sizes to 25 people.
Among those in attendance, according to her Facebook page, was the Brandon-based personal trainer who posted an anti-vaccine video online.
Also according to her Facebook page, the personal trainer does not wear a mask while entering local businesses because she believes they’re unsafe and unconstitutional.
A smaller-scale protest took place outside of Brandon City Hall in March, during which participants pledged to host another demonstration in the future.
Although Tweed said social media platforms are finally doing something about fake news, it’s a problem likely to linger for some time.
"I think it’s going to take a lot of time, and I guess education."
Manitoba’s third wave is starting, Atwal cautioned Manitobans Friday.
"When we had dozens of individuals in our ICU and hundreds of people in our hospitals here in Manitoba during the second wave, those aren’t make-believe individuals.
"Those are brothers, they’re fathers, they’re daughters, they’re mothers, they’re cousins, they’re uncles. There are plenty of individuals out there who are just general people walking around in normal life who contracted a virus where they were significantly impacted by it."
» Twitter: @TylerClarkeMB
THE SUN'S GUIDE TO FAKE NEWS
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought with it a wave of fake news related to the virus and measures taken to prevent its spread.
Fake news, by definition, is fake — factually incorrect or misleading.
The following is a guide on how to spot fake news. No media outlet, including The Brandon Sun, is exempt from these steps.
• CHECK THE SOURCE: Where is the information coming from? News stories don’t come out of thin air. They will cite experts and people with first-hand knowledge. Are these experts reputable? Fact-checking websites such as snopes.com and politifact.com offer a good starting point in determining fact from fiction. Not all “doctors” or “scientists” are reputable, and outliers who break away from their established community deserve a more critical examination.
• WHAT’S THE EVIDENCE?: Do the experts cited in the story have evidence to support their claim? Real-life examples, studies, surveys and other sources of information are key.
• IS IT OUT OF DATE?: Studies about vaccines that predate the COVID-19 pandemic will not be relevant to the current batch. The scientific community moves with the latest information they have available. As an example, Health Canada initially advised against masks during the early stages of the pandemic and now strongly urges people put them on. They altered their view as new information came to light. Where the anti-mask mentality wasn’t “fake news” early last year, it now is, according to the current scientific consensus.
• IS IT OUT OF CONTEXT?: The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported 3,005 deaths from Dec. 14, 2020 to April 12, 2021 among those who received COVID-19 vaccines. This fact has been used out of context to claim 3,005 people have died as a result of the vaccine, when in reality, 189 million doses were administered and the agency has reported no link between the vaccine and these deaths.
• CHECK YOUR CONFIRMATION BIAS: Don’t just believe those who say what you want them to, as this is where confirmation bias comes into play. Why do you believe one source and discredit the vast majority of their peers?
• REMAIN CRITICAL: Fake news is widespread, from media sources to informal conversations in your daily life. Journalists are human and make mistakes, but reputable ones will own up when they happen. You must remain ever vigilant to weed out mistruth from fact.