COVID-19 misinformation: To respond, or not to respond, that is the question

Recently, I ran across a post on social media with multiple bullet points of theories targeted at the current COVID-19 pandemic. Having encountered handfuls of previous posts running along the lines of these factually incorrect claims, I decided it was time to politely challenge the post by asking for the sources of these claims. Within minutes, I was attacked by multiple users with claims of being a “sheep,” ignorantly believing everything I’m told, and to look up the facts. As an incoming emergency medicine resident, I was shocked at the amount of resistance I faced, as my initial hope was to have a conversation. It was through this conversation that I wanted to ultimately stand up for my fellow healthcare providers and provide trustworthy information.

Following the initial attacks, I was at a fork in the road with the choice to exit the conversation or continue. I decided to stay the course and continue responding. After a day-long exchange of various topic shifts, twirls, and outrageous claims, the other contributors stopped responding. By the next day, the posting was ultimately taken down. Regardless of putting out credible information with my responses, providing citations, and treating others with respect, I came out of that exchange demoralized and unsure if I had any impact at all. This prompted me to question: What are our responsibilities as healthcare providers on social media to combat misinformation regarding COVID-19?

Johnathon Swift once said, “Falsehood flies, and the Truth comes limping after it.” As frontline healthcare workers come home from exhausting shifts and look for a way to connect with others through social media, they may face a range of posts on a spectrum ranging from factual to fabricated. Consequently, multiple options might run through that person’s mind, such as unfriending that person, responding to the post (in a multitude of ways), scrolling past it, etc. In this day and age of constantly breaking news, it doesn’t surprise us that misinformation is distributed faster than truth. That begs the question of why address the post if we ultimately feel it won’t go anywhere?

Sensationalism in media and the wide range of political bias challenges the sources by which these posts are deemed credible as well. The majority of us are not politicians, rather healthcare providers, and many times these posts are muddled by influences of political topics as well. What is scary to think is that these types of misinformation can ultimately guide policy, which directly impacts local and national public health. However, we have a priority to care for our patients within the walls of the hospital.

If you choose to respond or challenge someone’s post, first check in with yourself and make sure you have the emotional bandwidth to respond professionally and communicate effectively. Prioritize what is important to you as a healthcare provider with a support system of family and friends. These times are taxing for those sacrificing their health and safety to battle this pandemic, and everyone’s emotional and spiritual capacity is limited.

It helps to find common ground in approaching these claims, while ultimately using clear communication and focusing on credible information in your responses. To a certain degree, we do have of duty to ensure factual information regarding our profession is portrayed appropriately. This is one way in which we may indirectly advocate for our past, current, and future patients. However, this should only be done to the degree that it doesn’t cause emotional harm to ourselves and impede our ability to care for the patients we see on a daily basis.

Mahir Mameledzija is an emergency medicine resident.

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