Feb 1, 2022 - Health

Pandemic pits health care experts against the media

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Health care professionals and scientists no longer feel that they can rely on media and tech companies to effectively combat misinformation, so they're hitting the airwaves themselves.

Why it matters: The tension between the health and science industries and media and tech has been building for years, but now it's "on steroids," said Celine Gounder, an infectious disease specialist and clinical professor at NYU.

  • "We've definitely seen this with respect to vaccines for decades now, but it's on a whole other level now," she said.

Driving the news: There's been a huge spike in doctors, nurses and scientists starting their own media channels and building brands as medical news experts since the onset of the pandemic.

  • "It fills a void, a gap," said Peter Hotez, a vaccine researcher at the Baylor College of Medicine who has appeared on TV almost every day since the pandemic started.
  • "Part of the reason so many have stepped up is that they have felt this has become part of their job — there's a real need and urgency to engage in this in the public sphere, not just in the doctor’s office," Gounder said.

Health experts led the charge on Twitter last month protesting Spotify and the "Joe Rogan Experience" podcast.

  • ParentsTogether, a group of more than 2,500 doctors and parents, recently debuted a petition demanding tech companies remove and ban accounts and content that spread COVID-19 misinformation.
  • Last November, more than 500 U.S. public health care professionals signed a letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, demanding Facebook "take immediate, urgent action" to stop COVID disinformation and "disclose all data" about the "scope, reach, and content" of the disinformation.

Be smart: The vast majority of health care workers think misinformation is hurting their patients, including by persuading them not to get vaccinated against COVID, according to a new report.

  • Most believe social media (73%), and particularly Facebook, circulate misinformation that negatively impacts patient health care, per new data from the COVID States Project, a multi-university project to conduct scales surveys on U.S. public opinion and behavior related to the pandemic.

Yes, but: It's not just social media. Experts worry that other new media channels also act as vectors for misinformation.

  • "It's scary to have (Rep.) Marjorie Taylor Greene and Steve Bannon and their War Room podcast go after you," Hotez said. "Because you know what follows — their followers see that as a dog whistle to start lobbing threats through various mechanisms."
  • A new report from the Center for Countering Digital Hate found that Substack, a subscription newsletter company, generates "at least $2.5 million per year through publishing anti-vaccine misinformation."

The big picture: Although there have long been pockets of vaccine resistance and public health has previously been politicized around the world, the pandemic — and its politicization — has allowed health misinformation to become mainstream.

  • "What has changed since Ebola is, if anything, the social media platforms have gotten bigger and stronger,” Gounder said. It's become more clear that algorithms "tend to reinforce conspiracy thinking and disinformation tactics."

What to watch: Health care worker burnout is already contributing to staffing shortages across the country, and additional unpaid work fighting misinformation surely doesn't help.

  • But many scientists and health professionals see combatting misinformation as a matter of life and death.
  • "It's a labor of love — you do it because you really care," Gounder said.
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