COVID-19 misinformation and the paranoid style in Wisconsin’s pandemic politics

How false claims about public health data are frustrating efforts to fight the coronavirus.

By Will Cushman
WisContext
October 23, 2020

When the coronavirus started spreading around Wisconsin in the spring of 2020, Dr. Chad Tamez hosted Facebook Live sessions to help patients understand what was initially a mysterious new pathogen. A family physician who co-owns a private practice in West Bend, Tamez seized on the power of social media to discuss new medical findings about the coronavirus. But after a few weeks, he stopped hosting the sessions when he realized the pandemic was becoming political.

More than a half-year into a society-upending pandemic, the medical world had expanded its understanding of the COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus.

Multiple vaccine candidates had reached late-stage trials, and epidemiologists better understood how the virus spreads and attacks the human body. This growing body of knowledge draws on rivers of data about COVID-19 —  flowing daily from medical and public health researchers in Wisconsin and worldwide.

But some of Tamez’s patients remain deeply skeptical about the severity of disease, he said, even as the coronavirus infected and killed growing numbers of Wisconsinites in the fall, overwhelming hospitals and prompting the state to open a field hospital to alleviate pressure in crowded COVID-19 wards.

“There’s definitely confusion, and there’s definitely suspicion,” Tamez said.
Fueling those feelings: viral misinformation permeating American life in 2020, Tamez believes, as increasingly large swaths of a polarized populace take their cues from social media.

“I know people who think masking is foolish and think that the numbers are inflated or falsified, or that this is all just going to disappear after the election,” Tamez said…

Confronting the infodemic

Public health officials are considering how to combat the maelstrom of misinformation swirling around COVID-19.

“That is a key component of our pandemic response,” said Amanda Simanek, a professor of epidemiology at UW-Milwaukee.

“It’s not just treating patients,” said Simanek. “It’s not just testing. It’s not just contact tracing. Parallel to that, we have to help translate the science … in a way that manages misinformation.”

Simanek is part of a group of women epidemiologists, public health demographers and other researchers who have harnessed social media to explain COVID-19 and combat misinformation.

The group, called Dear Pandemic, has published dozens of reports targeting COVID-19 misinformation. (Malia Jones, a UW-Madison social epidemiologist and WisContext contributor, serves as editor-in-chief.) But combating misinformation without inadvertently spreading it further is a tricky task.

“We don’t love to necessarily focus on amplifying a toxic message,” said Lindsey Leininger, a Dear Pandemic member and professor at Dartmouth College. “Instead, we flip the narrative, and we talk about the durable lesson that comes from each piece of toxic misinformation.”

Leininger called this work “information hygiene,” but remains all too familiar with the challenges these efforts pose.

“This cacophony of different measures is helpful for targeting specific needs to specific places, but it is really confusing to those of us in the public trying to make sense and make comparisons across places and times,” Leininger said. “So it breeds confusion. It breeds uncertainty. And confusion and uncertainty are a crucible for misinformation.”

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