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Covid-19 nonsense peddled by celebrities needs to be challenged

High profile figures online have greater influence than we would like to believe

In times of great upheaval, toxic fictions too frequently fill the void left by uncertainty. Covid-19 has seen a staggering change in all our lives, and in the rush for answers, disinformation about the disease has spread as aggressively as its virological instigator. One curious facet of this has been the spectacle of high-profile celebrities pushing dubious nonsense. Madonna recently insisted that a vaccine existed but was suppressed by sinister agents. Lewis Hamilton shared a post insinuating the pandemic was a ruse by Bill Gates to microchip people, while John Cusack and Woody Harrelson have asserted a link between 5G technology and coronavirus – an allegation that crumbles with even cursory understanding of either topic.

These high-profile examples are just a sampling of famous figures pushing demonstrably wrong-headed views to their millions of followers. Nor is this phenomenon confined solely to entertainment figures, with politicians across the political spectrum worldwide sharing nonsense claims about the virus. Most infamous in this rogue’s gallery is Donald Trump, whose pre-eminence as conspiracy-theorist-in-chief is confirmed daily by his seeming incontinence for all things clandestine, to the point of undermining his own medical experts and jeopardising public health. While tempting to dismiss this as the hubris of underinformed, overly confident individuals, the explosion in coronavirus fictions tells us something more fundamental about how we interpret our world.

Bogus claims

The reality is that celebrity musings most certainly have some effect on our understanding. A recent study by the Reuters institute in Oxford found that while public figures constituted only one-in-five of bogus claims about Covid-19 made online, 69 per cent of all engagement with Covid-19 falsehoods was celebrity driven. This illustrates the reality that figures with huge audiences have outsized influence on public perception. It might be tempting to downplay this, given the narratives posited are frequently so outlandish. But the reality is that we have psychological quirks that make us particularly vulnerable to suspect claims. Among these is the illusory truth effect; the observation that repeated exposure to a falsehood can induce us to implicitly accept it – even when we know it to be false on an intellectual level.

We need to realise that we live in an era where disinformation is ubiquitous, and our only defence against it is to hone our scepticism

The availability heuristic also plays a role in warping our perception. This mental shortcut for quickly evaluating concepts pivots on the notion that if something can be easily recalled, it is pertinent and important. This frequently fails for two reasons. Firstly, it heavily skews judgments towards frequent or recent information. Secondly, because we tend to recall negative information more readily than positive or neutral accounts, we ascribe more weight to frightening or negative claims, even if they lack any semblance of veracity. This is a long-standing problem – the worldwide implosion in vaccine uptake rates are a potent example. This is due chiefly to anti-vaccine scaremongering online, where anti-vaccine activists deploy highly emotive anecdotes of ostensible dangers. While utterly fictitious, these stories eclipse the life-saving reality of immunisation, inducing vaccine hesitancy in unsuspecting parents – a cost measurable in human lives.


Anti-vaccine activists

With cynical predictability, anti-vaccine activists have been especially active in sowing nebulous narratives that paint Covid-19 as a hoax, or a manufactured virus to justify a new, nefarious vaccine. Nor are they the only ones to push falsehood in a time of crisis; false assertions linking 5G to Covid-19 have seen a spate of arson attacks on phone-towers, and fraudulent “natural” cures for Covid-19 have done a brisk trade, despite these having all the therapeutic efficacy of a magic 8-ball. To this we can add the unedifying sight of the American president warbling on about ultraviolet light and bleach, as well as creating a rush for hydroxychloroquine, despite zero evidence it has any utility for Covid-19 whatsoever. Repetition of such false claims by trusted figures gives bogus narratives a new lease of life, propelling them far beyond the fringes from whence they came.

We all like to think we are immune to such influence, but the sad reality is that we are not as a society especially skilled at spotting falsehood. Celebrity imprimatur shapes public narrative and has powerful effect on our recall and understanding. This needn’t always be negative: Elvis Presley’s championing of the polio vaccine increased uptake; and Roald Dahl, who lost his daughter Olivia to measles, penned a heart-breaking and influential plea that parents vaccinate.

Proliferation of falsehood

Celebrities and social media companies share plenty of blame for the proliferation of falsehood, but ultimately the onus to check facts ultimately lies with us. We need to realise that we live in an era where disinformation is ubiquitous, and our only defence against their harms is to hone our scepticism. This means we must embrace a form of informational hygiene akin to the physical hygiene measures we already practice, so that odious fictions cannot take spread. If we fail to do so, we’re left vulnerable to the whims of charlatans and fools.

Dr David Robert Grimes is a physicist, cancer researcher and author of The Irrational Ape: Why Flawed Logic Puts us all at Risk and How Critical Thinking Can Save the World