Siouxsie Wiles & Toby Morris: The red flags of Covid misinformation

As the vaccine is extended to younger people and the delta outbreak develops, the risk of a spike in misinformation is very real. Here’s what to look out for.


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Given we now know the virus is airborne and that delta is so much more infectious, a new feature of our current lockdown is masks. They’ve become mandatory for customers and customer-facing employees at any business or service that’s allowed to operate at alert level four.

Here’s another thing that’s new. Everyone 12-15 is now also eligible to get vaccinated. And if you already have a vaccine appointment you can just take your 12- to 15-year-olds with you and they can be vaccinated at the same time.

While these two announcements are good news for New Zealand’s ability to stamp out this delta outbreak, they are likely to result in a surge in people sharing fake facts and misinformation.

I’ve explained before how much of this misinformation (as well as what we call disinformation) has its origins overseas with people like the Disinformation Dozen and their allies and is then repackaged by our own Covid fantasists and contrarians to appeal to specific audiences in New Zealand.

I’ve also explained before why you are unlikely to hear or see me debunking specific bits of mis/disinformation. In brief: repeated exposure to fake news and alternative facts is one way that mis/disinformation gets bedded down into people’s memories. Even worse, when trustworthy sources of information talk about the mis/disinformation in an effort to debunk it and show how it is false, people can forget the debunking part and start to associate the mis/disinformation with the trustworthy source. And that then has the opposite effect.

The best way to deal with mis/disinformation is to get into the habit of checking any new bits of information that you come across for red flags. I’ve written about these before but here’s a recap. One immediate red flag is where the information comes from. If it steams from any of the known Disinformation Dozen or Covid contrarians. And if it’s coming from platforms like Bitchute, which is for people who’ve been chucked off YouTube, then definitely stay well clear.

Another red flag is information that downplays the seriousness of Covid-19 or the pandemic. Honestly, this one drives me nuts. Covid-19 isn’t “just a bad flu”. There are more than 4.4 million people confirmed dead. Mismanagement of the pandemic has brought the healthcare systems of countries like the UK and the US to breaking point multiple times. Right now, doctors in some US hospitals are warning that their paediatric intensive care units are nearing or have reached capacity. Yet, the Covid contrarians will wax lyrical about how many people survive Covid-19 just fine. More than 99.9% they’ll yell gleefully. They might even callously say that those who’ve died were going to die anyway.

But you won’t hear the contrarians talk about what kind of life many of those who survive Covid are left living. Long Covid is real. People left with brain fog, breathlessness, racing hearts. Who knows what long term damage may reveal itself in the years to come? They probably won’t mention the case reports starting to come in from people who’ve been left with erectile dysfunction, or premature ejaculation, or being unable to ejaculate.

The next red flag to watch for is whether the information being pushed at you emphasises your personal choice and freedoms over acting for the collective good. The research is really clear: communities that come together survive disasters the best. Our team of five million acted together to stamp out Covid-19 before and we’ll do it again. Those who want to disrupt our team will focus on trying to get us to act in what they suggest are our best interests. But you know what? How they want us to behave isn’t good for any of us. Yes, you have the freedom not to wear a mask or get vaccinated. But would you want to infect and potentially harm one or more of your whānau? Your neighbours? Your workmates?

Here’s an exercise for you. Imagine you are hosting a dinner party. Now think about which of your four family members or friends you would invite. Think about them and what they mean to you. Now imagine the meal you are all going to eat together. What’s on the menu? Where are you eating? Now imagine you unknowingly had Covid-19 and spread it to everyone at the dinner. One of your guests ended up in hospital. A recent study found that asking people to do this kind of visualisation exercise helped them better understand the risks of Covid-19.

Here’s another red flag to look out for: is the information coming from someone who is pushing or trying to sell you something? A book or seminar perhaps? Or a simple supplement or cure? Are they ranting about the evils of Bill Gates or “Big Pharma”? Would you be surprised to find out the organisations belonging to the Disinformation Dozen peddle enough crap to give them an annual revenue of at least US$36 million. I’ve seen plenty of our own Covid contrarians asking for donations too.

The last red flag to look out for is, how does the information make you feel? Is it presented in a way that seems designed to make you angry or scared? That is deliberate. It’s to make more people share it. So remember, good information put out to help you make an informed choice won’t make you feel scared or angry. It’ll make you feel empowered.




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