Tall tales and conspiracy theories: Alabama experts battle coronavirus misinformation

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Jiyoung Lee started off her News Analysis class at the University of Alabama on Monday by asking her students to bring up a “hot topic” they experienced or saw over the weekend.

One of the students spoke up and said he saw something on social media: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention supposedly released data showing that 6% of people who died from Covid-19 actually had the coronavirus, and that a whopping 94% of people who died had some other pre-existing condition that caused the death.

“He said he saw it on Twitter and that he got the news from close friends on his Twitter network,” said Lee. “That shows a huge problem of facing misinformation on social media. My students are in senior level classes and are majoring in journalism. They can be called media literate, but they are also exposed to (falling for misinformation).”

Indeed, a swirl of misinformation about the novel coronavirus continues to spread on Twitter, Facebook and beyond. A loop of conspiracy theories, hoaxes and falsehoods have linked the virus to bat consumption in China, allowed dangerous miracle cures to flourish and led to the spread of the “Plandemic” conspiracy theory to more than 8 million viewers. That debunked video alleged that top infectious-disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, manufactured the virus and shipped it to China, and then wrongly warned that masks can make you sick.

The World Health Organization has already labeled the phenomena of bad information as an “infodemic.”

But where should the public go for their news on the coronavirus pandemic? Some journalism professors offer these tips:

– Gheni Platenburg, an assistant professor at the School of Communication and Journalism at Auburn University, said she would direct the public to websites like MediaWise and the Poynter Institute or any organization that is helping improve media literacy.

– Lee said that the website NewsGuard helps provide validity to the websites that appear on social media sites: A green checkmark indicates a credible site for news and information, while a red mark alerts the user to something that could be fictious.

-According to longtime Associated Press journalist and former Auburn University professor Phillip Rawls, the public should be concerned about reading information on websites that are filled with “bad writing and grammar” or those which are not updated regularly. They should also avoid any sites that do not provide contract information, including a street address or email address and phone number. “Any legitimate news site will provide contact information,” he said.

-Rawls also said the public needs to be mindful over the differences between a “reporter” and a commentator who pontificates often on cable TV news stations. “Reporters, hopefully, are trying to give facts to the public,” he said. “Commentators are entertainers whose livelihoods depend on keeping the public interested in what they have to say. Commentators rarely do any reporting themselves. They comment on what others have reported.”

-Variety is important, according to the professors, and that includes exposure to news and information outlets. According to Robbyn Taylor, a lecturer at Troy University’s Hall School of Journalism and Communication, there is a “danger” in just receiving news from a Twitter or Facebook feed. “The problem with using social media as a primary news source is that you only see people who are like-minded posting. Go somewhere else and see what the other side is thinking and saying and what credibility do they have to back (their information) up. Expose ourselves to different things, and do not be spoon-fed what people are handing us on social media.”

Death certificate confusion

The latest chapter in the unfolding cases of coronavirus tall tales revolves around the misinterpretation of CDC data regarding coronavirus deaths posted on social media as a way to illustrate that the federal agency isn’t providing accurate data, and that the severity of the virus – which has led to a mandatory mask requirement in Alabama — is overblown. President Donald Trump retweeted a claim that discounted the coronavirus death toll in the U.S. last weekend, which Twitter took down over concerns that the post spread false information.

Frustration is mounting among public health professionals, including those in Alabama who are stressing that the CDC data does not discount the seriousness of a virus that has killed 188,401 Americans and 2,275 Alabama residents.

Dr. Scott Harris, the Alabama State Health Officer, said during a news conference on Wednesday that the social media activity underscored a “deliberate misinterpretation of what the data actually shows.”

“Somehow people have used (the CDC) data to say that 94% of the deaths aren’t real deaths or something like that,” said Harris. “It’s very frustrating for us in public health. I think there are people who, unfortunately, want to cherry pick statistics to show what they already believe in anyway, and they want to try and convince people.”

He added, “We hope people think about that information themselves. Contact a trusted health professional and talk to people at your health department on whether there are issues on how the data is interpreted.”

The CDC data, which was released about one week ago, shows that for 6% of all deaths, “Covid-19 was the only cause mentioned.” For deaths with conditions or causes in addition to Covid-19, the CDC reports that on average, there were “2.6 additional conditions or causes per death.” Among the additional conditions were respiratory diseases, circulatory diseases such as heart failure, diabetes, and obesity.

Health officials have further explained, in the past week, that public confusion stems from what is recorded on a death certificate. The certificates lists the causes and conditions that contribute to someone’s death and are submitted by a physician or a coroner. There may also be more than one contributing condition that leads to someone’s death, according to health officials.

“All United States deaths are recorded using standardized death certificates filled by clinicians,” said Dr. Rachael Lee, assistant professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s Division of Infectious Diseases and UAB Hospital’s chief epidemiologist. “One of the spaces on the form includes ‘immediate cause of death’ followed by several lines for ‘underlying causes’ underneath.”

She said that CDC acknowledges 6% of deaths are labeled as Covid-19 only – accounting for over 11,000 deaths in the U.S. – in which there was no other underlying cause. Lee also said if someone looks further at the CDC tables, respiratory diseases and respiratory failure are a “common immediate cause of death, which is unfortunately seen in Covid-19, with likely Covid-19 listed as an underlying cause.” She noted that the CDC has considered Covid-19 as the underlying cause in more than 95% of the cases.

According to the CDC’s chart – last updated on August 29, and accounting for 166,044 deaths — “influenza and pneumonia” has contributed to deaths involving coronavirus in 71,700 cases (43.2%), while respiratory failure was involved in 57,502 cases (34.6%).

“Recording deaths accurately is incredibly important for the public and clinicians, including looking at all causes of death when Covid-19 is included on the death certificate,” said Lee. “We continue to have higher numbers of excess deaths in this country and we all need to do our part to try and reduce the spread of Covid-19: Wash your hands, wear a mask and watch your distance.”

Death statistics

But the presentation of the data has helped fuel misunderstanding, and radio show host Sean Sullivan is hearing from perplexed listeners who doubt the validity of the inundation of data they are receiving about the virus. Further fomenting confusion and misunderstanding is very nature of the novel coronavirus pandemic as an ever-changing news topic and one that lacks prior experience from the global medical community.

“I’m hearing a lot of frustration from my listeners that the information changes with such regularity,” said Sullivan, who hosts the “Midday Mobile” radio show on FM Talk 1065 in Mobile. “It’s unprecedented how quickly the news changes with coronavirus. That’s because it’s new and there are so many changes and unknowns. It gives you pause on any new information coming out.”

Sullivan said the CDC’s recent death statistic illustrates some of the concerns he has heard regarding “gray areas” in the data. Those gray areas, he said, focuses on how much of a factor coronavirus plays into the underlying cause of someone’s death and then why the CDC – even when other contributing factors play a role in a death – labels it among the overall coronavirus statistics.

Sullivan, during an interview he had last month with Dr. Rendi Murphree, an epidemiologist with the Mobile County Health Department, posed a hypothetical situation: What if someone infected with coronavirus was killed in a fatal car crash or “run over by a truck”? Would that death still be included in the CDC’s overall coronavirus death count?

Murphree responded that Covid-19 can be listed on that person’s death certificate, even if the cause and manner of the death is related to trauma from a car crash.

“It depends on what is on the death certificate and what the attending physician codes it as,” said Murphree, during Sullivan’s show. “These decisions are made by attending physicians who know the circumstances of that death. Yes, sometimes even something like a car accident or a heart attack might be classified as Covid-positive. Right now, we’re trying to gather as much information as we can about the causes of death in people who are Covid-positive. Our assumption is it’s an acute respiratory distress syndrome. But if we only code Covid deaths on that narrow definition, then we can’t learn about deaths from maybe cardiac disease that were related to the Covid infections, but the science hasn’t recognized that link yet.”

The CDC does include a category called “intentional and unintentional injury, poisoning and other adverse effects” within its coronavirus death counts. According to CDC, 5,424 deaths or 3.3%, are listed as contributing factor in a coronavirus death.

Dr. Scott Chavers, also an epidemiologist at the Mobile County Health Department, said that listing Coivd-19 as a contributory factor stems from the disease’s ability to “affect other organ systems, including vessels in the brain” that can cause “disorientation, etc.”

He said, “There is a wider net that is being cast right now until we are able to really understand what the Covid-19 contributions are to mortality in Mobile County. I can say this, though, if you look at the CDC data which evaluates mortality on February 1 to now, and compare the 10 health indicators to historic levels, all 10 are elevated including overdose. Covid is having an effect beyond the straight ‘died from Covid’ event.”

‘Driven by politics’

Trump speaks

President Donald Trump speaks about the coronavirus in the Rose Garden of the White House, Friday, May 15, 2020, in Washington. Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Dr. Anthony Fauci listens at left. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)AP

The frustrations with comprehending complex data is fueling rumor mills and conspiracies spread throughout social media.

Atop the concerns is that the coronavirus pandemic is an affront to Trump’s re-election, and that public health restrictions such as mask mandates and advisories will be lifted after the November 3 election.

Sullivan said he hears from callers, “and not just hardcore ideologues,” who are skeptical about whether the virus concerns will continue beyond Election Day.

“I heard people say, ‘how much of this is driven by politics?’” he said. “The problem with this is because, I think, once again, the failing is in the way the information was coming out and it’s easy to make it political.”

He added, “If Trump came out and said, ‘we have now found a treatment for the coronavirus’ and supported it in every way, it would be discounted because he said that. And that is the case where people have to make decisions based on facts and not facts they are making based on whether they … are fans of President Trump or if they are against Trump.”

A report from the Pew Research Center in late June shows that Americans are divided through partisanship on who and what they believe when it comes to coronavirus information.

Majorities of Democrats and independents who lean toward the Democratic Party say the CDC and other health groups (76%), governors and state governments (62%), local news media (62%) and national news media (60%) usually get the facts right, while only 9% say the same about Trump and his administration. Conversely, 54% of Republicans and Republican leaners say Trump and his administration get the facts right at least most of the time – which is slightly above how many in the GOP say the same thing about the CDC (51%). Republicans are less likely to say the same about governors and state governments (45%), local news media (38%) and the national media (25%).

“I think that a large part of the reason why there has been so much confusion and misinformation being spread is that people are in their own filter bubbles,” said Platenburg, the Auburn University journalism professor. “People are on social media. People are consuming news. The type of news, if you even can call some of its news, and the different platforms they are consuming, doesn’t always yield the best results of information delivery.”

For journalism and mass media instructors in Alabama, the challenge is trying to communicate how best the public can absorb an inundation of news articles, data and research related to the ever-evolving news story of the pandemic.

The explosion of information about the coronavirus also comes at a time when the public has grappled with the issue of news literacy, which represents the ability to determine the credibility of news and other content. According to a 2019 Pew Research Center study, a minority of adults can correctly differentiate between fact and opinion while a 2019 Stanford History Education Group study found that 96% of high school students did not consider the validity of a news source.

“There is so much information out there to sift through and it’s coming from so many directions,” said Taylor, the Troy University journalism lecturer. She said a small percentage of the hundreds of thousands of articles circulated on social media during the beginning of the pandemic in March were coming from science and health care Websites.

“It can be confusing quickly,” she said. “We have to think about the experts we listen to. When we go for medical advice, we go to a doctor. We don’t go to a celebrity or a politician. And we go to a specialist for certain things. I won’t go to a cardiologist if I have a broken leg.”

She, like a lot of others, are urging the public to be mindful about sharing coronavirus-related information especially if it comes from a politician.

“If it comes from a politician, does (the information) back up their campaign?” said Taylor. “If it comes from a celebrity, does it increase their value somehow? We have to be cynical, somewhat.”

She added, “We have this idea that we’re maybe being victims of misinformation and fake news. But we can’t just sit back and be passive consumers of information. We have to be active, especially on things posted to social media. We have to critically evaluate things we see, and people have to really focus on being news literate or trying to make sure that the information (they are consuming) is truthful and trustworthy.”

Wise choices

Democratic U.S. Senator Doug Jones, for months, has hosted several video conferences with medical experts and epidemiologists including Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious diseases. He said the purpose of these sessions is so that the public can get updates from experts who are routinely dealing with the coronavirus.

And Jones is warning the public to avoid the politicians, “especially as we go into the silly season of an election year.”

Doug Jones

In this Thursday, May 7, 2020, file photo, U.S. Sen. Doug Jones, D-Ala., speaks during a Senate Health Education Labor and Pensions Committee hearing on new coronavirus tests on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, Pool, File)AP

“We have never seen this virus before until December of last year,” said Jones. “It is still new. This is a work in progress. Some of the guidance have changed. We’re getting better with therapeutics and opportunities for treatment. Things change even among health care professionals as we get more data and more studies. That’s important to remember. Simply because someone is telling us something that maybe wasn’t what they were saying five to six months ago, it means that they got new information and better information. Keep up to date with it.”

Said Harris, the State Health Officer, “We share everyone’s frustration over the mixed messages we get from so many different sources. Ultimately, we all have to make our own decisions. But there are way too many crazy or conspiracy ideas out there or just people with axes to grind who are saying things all across the spectrum. Please reach out to a trusted professional who will give you the best possible information.”

Sullivan, at FM Talk 1065, said his advice for listeners who are confused or frustrated over the litany of coronavirus news and data is to absorb as much reliable information as possible, and then “let it go through the filter of common sense.”

“American people are smart enough that when given the information and when getting it from multiple sources, will make wise decisions for themselves and their families,” he said.



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