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Legal and Health Experts Discuss Widespread, Dangerous Health Misinformation at Virtual Panel

Harvard Medical School's Center for Bioethics hosted a virtual panel on health misinformation on Friday.
Harvard Medical School's Center for Bioethics hosted a virtual panel on health misinformation on Friday. By Jonathan G. Yuan
By Paul E. Alexis and Elias J. Schisgall, Contributing Writers

Legal and bioethics experts convened to discuss the prevalence of health misinformation in the Covid era and how to combat it at a virtual panel hosted by the Harvard Medical School Center for Bioethics on Friday.

The event, called “Watching This Talk Will Save Your Life: Dealing with Health Misinformation in the COVID Era,” was moderated by Michael S. Sinha, a researcher at the Harvard-MIT Center for Regulatory Science at Harvard Medical School.

The panelists included University of Pennsylvania communications professor Joseph N. Cappella and Northeastern University law and public policy professor Wendy E. Parmet.

Capella first began by discussing how health misinformation and disinformation are effective tools to sow distrust of authoritative health information. He cited an example of New York City’s Polish population being targeted by outside political agitators who claimed that mRNA vaccines were crafted to decimate Christianity and the Polish nation.

Additionally, he highlighted an October 2020 study conducted in the U.S. and the U.K. that found that participants were less likely to get vaccinated after exposure to just a few pieces of misinformation.

Parmet discussed the legal debates over health misinformation, saying that conservatives on the Supreme Court have begun shifting toward a stricter examination of regulations on speech, potentially allowing health misinformation to propagate even further.

“Traditionally, public health has always been a compelling state interest,” Parmet said. “I will say that last month, kind of shocking to me, three justices on the Supreme Court, in a decision refusing to take a vaccine case, suggested that it wasn’t clear that stopping the pandemic or protecting people from Covid-19 would remain a compelling state interest.”

“It’s hard to know: if that’s not a compelling state interest, what is a compelling state interest?” he added.

In an interview after the event, Parmet discussed the larger trend of the Supreme Court striking down policies meant to stop the spread of Covid-19, such as lockdowns and eviction moratoriums.

“The Court has been very hostile to Covid mitigation regulations,” Parmet said. “But it has also been exceptionally, pre-Covid, hostile to speech restrictions.”

In assigning responsibility to the widespread presence of misinformation, Capella blamed both legacy media outlets and social media.

“Groups like Fox News, have a bias that's political. And so they’re covering the misinformation because they have a political agenda in mind and they’re trying to pursue that political agenda,” Capella said.

He added in an interview following the event that some well-intentioned journalists also help spread misinformation by giving it a platform.

“Try not to repeat misinformation if you can avoid it,” Capella said. “And don’t pick up every tidbit of this information that’s out there and give it a place in the journalistic enterprise.”

In terms of the role of social media in the dissemination of misinformation, Capella pointed to a landmark MIT study from 2017, which found that falsehoods spread “farther, faster, deeper, and more broadly” on social media than true information.

In suggesting solutions to impeding the spread of misinformation, Sinha highlighted the importance of spending time listening.

“I would say we need to spend more time with those who see us as trusted resources. It’s a matter of having a conversation that allows individuals to be seen and heard,” Sinha said in an interview after the event.

Capella emphasized being empathetic when discussing misinformation in a post-panel interview.

“I do think that there is no easy way of bridging some of these fundamental divides, which are really not so much about information, as they are often about identity, and they are often about values that are behind the information,” Capella said.

“I think the best that one can do is to try to be empathic — try to keep the lines of communication open, provide information to the other person, and allow them the freedom to make up their own minds, but provide them with additional information to help them move from where they are,” he added.

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ResearchHarvard Medical SchoolSchool of Public HealthEventsCoronavirus