Coronavirus (1048) BBC: How my mum became a conspiracy theory influencer (2)

26 October, 2020

I watched the BBC video about Sebastian and how his mother, a previously registered UK nurse who 'has became one of the leaders of Britain’s conspiracy community, collecting tens of thousands of followers with false claims – including denying coronavirus exists, blaming the symptoms of Covid-19 on 5G radio waves and likening the NHS to Nazi Germany'. It makes me reflect on the role of health literacy in combating misinformation.

I would like to pick up on a specific aspect of the infodemic response. It is widely suggested that raising the health literacy of the general population is an effective approach to protect people from misinformation. I am not so sure that this approach can work as well as many people believe. We repeatedly see examples where very highly educated people believe in COVID misinformation conspiracy theories. A few months ago, I related how my relative in the USA, who has a bioscience PhD, was taken in by a spoof email about 'if you can hold your breath from 10 seconds you don't have COVID', and the case above is someone who had previous received professional training to become a registered nurse in the UK. Of course, two anecdotes do not prove anything. It would be interesting to see more evidence. Kate Shemirani has tens of thousands of followers on YouTube and attracts huge crowds when she speaks. Isthere a way to look at correlation of health literacy with belief in conspiracy theory? I suspect the correlation is much less than we think. Even if a PhD or professional health training could reduce susceptibility to misinformation, it is inconceivable that wholepopulations could eb raised to this level.

My hunch is that supply-led approaches are much more likely to be effective. By 'supply-led' I refer to action by healthcare information providers, information technologists, search engine operators, and tech companies to make it much more obvious to people that information is reliable or unreliable. Thanks to efforts by WHO and big tech companies, there is limited movement in this direction. There needs to be a lot more. And we need to find new ways to do this. One approach that is promising is to kite-mark information in the same way that coffee and tea are kitemarked as 'Fair Trade'. The Health on the Net Foundation in Switzerland uses this approach for health websites, but this very small organisation is barely known and therefore has limited impact. I'm not sure if kite-marking is part of the solution, but I'm convinced there needs to be more brainstorming about how we can make it much easier for people to tell the difference between reliableand unreliable information.

Best wishes, Neil

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HIFA profile: Neil Pakenham-Walsh is coordinator of the HIFA global health campaign (Healthcare Information For All - www.hifa.org ), a global community with more than 19,000 members in 177 countries, interacting on six global forums in four languages in collaboration with WHO. Twitter: @hifa_org FB: facebook.com/HIFAdotORG neil@hifa.org