Flawed Scientific Persons Fueling COVID-19 Misinformation


Scientific studies with poor methodology and inaccurate results exacerbate a COVID-19 misinformation crisis that discourages vaccinations and puts lives at risk.

The strong public interest in the pandemic, and the divisive debate in the United States about how to deal with it, is facilitating the spread of flawed research on the Internet, including by anti-vaccination campaigners. And even if a study is withdrawn, it will be too late.

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Scientific studies with poor methodology and inaccurate results exacerbate a COVID-19 misinformation crisis that discourages vaccinations and puts lives at risk.

The strong public interest in the pandemic, and the divisive debate in the United States about how to deal with it, is facilitating the spread of flawed research on the Internet, including by anti-vaccination campaigners. And even if a study is withdrawn, it will be too late.

“Once the Per is released, the damage is irreversible,” said Emerson Brooking, resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, which focuses on disinformation identification and detection.

Defective persons “are fuel for fire for COVID-19 skeptics and conspiracy theorists. They are often the subject of online viral activity. Their results are further filtered through lewd and misleading articles from fringe websites, ”Brooking told AFP.

Inaccurate information about vaccines is especially dangerous at a time when vaccination uptake has slowed in the United States, where health officials say almost all recent COVID-19 deaths have occurred in those who have not been vaccinated.

“Shock your socks off”

Medical journal Vaccines published a peer-reviewed report in late June entitled “The Safety of COVID-19 Vaccines – We Should Rethink Policy”. It concluded that for every three people rescued, Covid-19 shots killed two people – findings that quickly spread on social media.

A tweet by scientist and Covid-19 vaccine critic, Robert Malone, who sums up the pros, garnered thousands of retweets. A video in which conservative expert Liz Wheeler spoke about the study – which she said will “knock your socks off your socks” – was viewed more than 250,000 times on Facebook.

But Vaccines then withdrew the Per, saying it contained “several errors that profoundly affect the interpretation of the results.”

At least four Vaccines board members resigned following the publication of the study, including Katie Ewer, associate professor and senior immunologist at the Jenner Institute, Oxford University.

“You should have realized that this Per would have a big impact,” said Ewer, who was not involved in its publication. “That no one in the magazine picked it up … is very worrying, especially for a magazine devoted to vaccines.”

Malone’s tweet about the person is no longer available, but Wheeler’s video was still showing up on Facebook weeks later.

The Gateway Pundit, a website that frequently publishes inaccurate claims, reported earlier this year that a Stanford University study found wearing masks recommended by U.S. health officials to slow the spread of Covid-19 was “ineffective” and harmful proved.

‘Do a better job’

The study – “Face Masks in the COVID-19 Era: A Health Hypothesis” – was subsequently withdrawn by the journal Medical Hypotheses, which said it selectively cited published people and contained “unverified” data.

Gateway Pundit’s article – which was shared tens of thousands of times as a link or screenshot on social media – was updated to say the study’s author is not affiliated with Stanford, but it made no mention of the withdrawal.

Some of the largest scientific journals, including The Lancet and the New England Journal of Medicine, have withdrawn people related to the coronavirus crisis, and even a limited number of flawed studies can do significant harm online.

Scientists have come into the public eye in “an unprecedented way”, so experts “need to do a better job” explaining their work to lay audiences who may lack the skills to judge it, said Maimuna Majumder, a computer-based company Epidemiologist at Harvard Medical School.

“Not all studies that were carried out and disseminated during the pandemic were scientifically robust,” said Majumder.

“This is particularly worrying as poorly conducted studies have shown cables to influence decision-making at the individual level during the pandemic, including those relating to vaccinations.”

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