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'A distorted perspective': How anti-lockdown groups are using data to downplay the impact of Covid-19

Lauren Boland looks at the use of official statistics by anti-lockdown accounts.

Image: Shutterstock/leungchopan

OVER THE PAST fifteen months, Ireland has been battling a surge of misinformation about Covid-19 and the effects of pandemic-related social restrictions on people.

Often, this misinformation takes the form of patently untrue claims about the virus, lockdowns or the contents of Covid-19 vaccines.

But occasionally, false claims can go viral on social media because they are more subtly misleading.

One such tactic is the misuse of official statistics in social media posts, where individuals take legitimate information from government sources and omit key contextual data or simply misrepresent what statistics say to suit their own narrative.

This method is regularly used in discussions about the number of people who have died in Ireland over the course of the pandemic.

One Twitter user, for example, recently suggested that the pandemic was a “fraud” because – they claimed – data from the Central Statistics Office (CSO) did not show a significant jump in the overall number of people who died of all causes last year.

Others have juxtaposed the same claim with further claims that public health restrictions have led to a rise in deaths by suicides here. Those who do so often use false or unverified information to support their wider claims that lockdowns are not needed and should not be used.

These claims often contain nuggets of truth which make them harder to debunk, and their use of data from official sources can lure people into believing they are true even when they don’t tell the full story.

False or misleading information on social media about deaths in Ireland last year often use the topic of deaths as a vehicle to share broader conspiracy theories denying the impact of Covid-19, or to say that the virus itself is not real.

Dr Eileen Culloty, a professor at Dublin City University who specialises in disinformation, explained how the nature of such claims often make people want to share them with others.

“Most of the problem content that gets shared is things that have a grain of truth but are then missing some context or have a slant that gives you a distorted perspective, and that’s what we see a lot with Covid-19,” she told The Journal.

“If you come across an alarming story that’s about harm or potential danger, you have an emotional reaction to that and your instinct is to share it and let other people know.

“There have been audience studies that look into why people share disinformation and false claims, and often it’s because they think they’re doing something good, that they’re doing something positive and it’s out of a concern for other people.”

Culloty also said that it’s important to help people understand where such false claims come from.

“In the population as a whole, most of us lack data literacy and scientific literacy and so we’re hearing these statements and seeing data but we don’t necessarily have the skills to assess it,” she says.

“That makes it easier for people to present in a biased way or miss out context and many of us just don’t have the skill to evaluate it for ourselves.” 

Deaths in Ireland

Two reports published by the Central Statistics Office (CSO) are particularly important for understanding how deaths in Ireland are calculated: the Vital Statistics Yearly Summary and Measuring Mortality Using Public Data Sources.

Last week, the CSO released its Vital Statistics Yearly Summary for 2020, an extensive report looking at births, deaths and marriages.

It says that 31,765 deaths were registered last year, a 2% rise compared to 2019, when 31,134 deaths were registered.

Circulatory system diseases comprised the largest proportion of deaths, followed by malignant cancers and lung diseases.

The CSO assigned Covid-19 as the underlying cause of death for 1,672 people in 2020.

Additionally, there were 167 records where Covid-19 was mentioned on the person’s death certificate, but where it wasn’t determined to be the underlying cause of death.

This is different from the amount of deaths published by the Department of Health in its daily updates – which stood at 2,237 on 31 December – because the department publishes the number of people who died with Covid-19.

Neither number is “wrong” – they’re describing different things.

The CSO follows the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) international system for the classification of diseases, including for Covid-19, and assigns an underlying cause of death to each of the deaths that it records.

Meanwhile, the Department of Health reports on the deaths of all people who died while they had Covid-19.

It’s true that the total number of deaths registered this year – 31,134 – is not a massive jump from previous years.

However, this does not mean that the pandemic is not real.

Significant public health measures were put in place, like restrictions on movement, school closures and changes in our social behaviour, to try to prevent people from becoming sick and dying.

The full extent of what might have happened if those measures were not implemented cannot truly be known.

Covid figures 003-2 (1) An ambulance outside the Mater Hospital in Dublin, March 2021 Source: Sasko Lazarov/Rollingnews.ie

‘Excess mortality’

A second series of data on deaths from the CSO this year – Measuring Mortality Using Public Data Sources – helps to illustrate this.

To compile this report, the CSO drew on data from RIP.ie, a website where families can post death notices after a loved one dies. The agency used the website’s listings to monitor deaths close to the time they occurred to calculate ‘excess mortality’.

Excess mortality is “the number of deaths over and above what would be expected under normal circumstances” in a given year.

It is a term frequently deployed by those who spread misinformation about Covid-19 to downplay the impact of the pandemic and the need for lockdowns – but such claims often misconstrue how deaths in Ireland are actually counted.

In Ireland, relatives of a person who has died legally have three months to register the death with the General Register Office (GRO). It could be longer if a coroner has to carry out an inquiry as to the circumstances of their death. 

In contrast, RIP.ie allows death notices to be registered close to real-time, which means it gives a quicker indication of deaths as they occur than the official reports from the GRO.

Using the notices on RIP.ie, the CSO estimated that between March 2020 and February 2021, there were over 2,000 excess deaths – somewhere between 2,034 and 2,338.

However, it observed “pronounced increases” in the number of death notices in April 2020 (3,504), during the first wave of the pandemic, and in January (3,919) and February 2021 (3,147), during the third wave. 

Speaking to The Journal, CSO statistician John Flanagan – who compiled the report – said that RIP.ie death notices capture the majority of deaths that occur in Ireland and that the information they contain is highly accurate, as well as being updated more quickly than death registrations sent to the GRO.

“Generally speaking, a death notice [on RIP.ie] goes up within a day, which is remarkable,” Flanagan said.

In contrast, there was a mean average number of days between a person’s date of death and date of registration with the GRO of 63 days, something which would otherwise make it harder to estimate excess mortality during waves of a pandemic.

Methodology

Before the work using the RIP.ie notices began, the CSO needed to be able to verify whether it was a reliable data source to gauge excess mortality in Ireland.

To do this, Flanagan spoke to the Irish Association of Funeral Directors, as well as to organisations representing minority ethnic or religious groups in case the site was what he described as a “white, Irish Christian phenomenon”.

Pavee Point, a group representing the Traveller and Roma communities, said that some young Travellers use RIP.ie, but the majority of older Travellers do not, with information about deaths in their community usually spread through word of mouth, phone, and social media.

And the Islamic Foundation of Ireland advised Flanagan to look at the Newcastle burial ground, which has a section for Muslim burials, to determine the impact on the community.

This led to an analysis of data from Dublin graveyards operated by Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council, Fingal County Council, South Dublin County Council and the Glasnevin Trust.

Ultimately, Flanagan found that the unusually high spike in death notices in April 2020 was also visible in records of burials and cremations.

“Everything showed that this spike we saw in April was completely out of character to anything we had seen before,” he said.

He also noted that analysis of the data needs to be standardised and consider a wide range of factors – which is often missed out or ignored in misinformation shared online.

Deaths due to influenza, for example, have not followed their normal path at the start of this year because the flu virus is not circulating in the community the way it usually would be.

This is because measures like hand washing, social distancing, vaccinations and less social interaction – introduced to combat the spread of Covid-19 – have also impacted seasonal flu rates.

Deaths recorded as being a result of flu may only have been in the hundreds in previous years, but we have “never swabbed or tested for a virus” to the same extent that we have for Covid-19 before, Flanagan pointed out.

The introduction of public health measures in a bid to contain the spread of Covid-19 likely meant that fewer people died of Covid-19 than would have if the virus had been allowed to transmit without limits.

Deaths by suicide

Another problematic misuse of statistics over the past year has seen often unverified claims suggest that Covid-19 measures have led to a rise in the number of suicides in Ireland.

Deaths by suicide are especially difficult to monitor because of the unique circumstances that surround them.

Mental health organisations have repeatedly raised concerns about exaggerated, false or unverified numbers being shared online about deaths by suicide.

At the other end of the scale, it’s also important not to underestimate the number of people who die by suicide, which can happen if provisional records are prematurely interpreted as the final, official count.

The CSO recently released provisional figures on the number of deaths by suicide in Ireland that have been registered so far for 2020.

At least 340 people died by suicide last year, included 259 men and 81 women.

The provisional data indicates that there may have been fewer, or similar, deaths by suicide in 2020 compared to previous years – however, the final figure will not be available until after late registrations are counted.

The provisional suicide rate for 2019 was 8.6 deaths per 100,000 people, which has fallen to 6.8 per 100,000 for 2020.

The rate decreased from 13.0 to 10.5 for men and from 4.2 to 3.2 for women.

In 2019, 421 people – 317 men and 104 women – died by suicide; 437 people in 2018; and 383 in 2017, according to the most recent available figures. 

The figures currently published by the CSO for 2019 and 2020 are by the year the death was registered and are subject to future revision as late registrations are counted.

But the process for officially counting deaths by suicide in Ireland is lengthy – finalised data is published with a time gap of several years.

In the interim, there is a specific procedure that must be followed to determine whether a death was due to suicide through a coroner’s inquiry.

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Provisional figures are released initially, and are subsequently added to late registrations to publish a final figure.

The most recent official figures on the number of suicide deaths nationally in Ireland are for 2018, and final figures including late registrations are only available for 2017 and previous years.

shutterstock_1918956056 Source: Shutterstock/Dragana Gordic

Speaking to The Journal, CSO statistician Carol Anne Hennessy, an author of the Vital Statistics Summary for 2020, said the number of deaths by suicide in each year is a “dynamic” figure that is updated as more registrations are received.

“All deaths that are registered are included in our quarterly data, and in our subsequent yearly summary. That is provisional data,” she explains.

“That’s why we give 22 months from the end of the relevant year to do our final data, because it gives the chance to have as many cases included in data.”

Hennessy said that the impact of the pandemic on coroners’ inquiries may mean that the process has been moving slower, but that it can’t be said what effect that might have on late registrations.

“The coroner’s office decides what cases go to inquest, and on suicide cases, they have a legal requirement to determine whether the case is a suicide or not beyond a reasonable doubt,” she says.

“At the CSO, we publish figures if, in the balance of probabilities, it was a suicide.

“If it’s not beyond reasonable doubt for the coroner and we have questions around it, we send out a special form to the gardaí that attended the scene on the day.”

International data also suggests that Covid-19 did not lead to an increase in suicide rates.

A study published in the Lancet Psychiatry Journal in April did not find evidence of an increased risk of suicide during the first wave of the pandemic.

The study saw no increase in deaths by suicide in spring and early summer last year in 21 high-income and upper-middle-income countries.

Ireland is classed as a high-income country under the World Bank’s country classification, but was not included in the study because the way that deaths by suicides are recorded here means that the information is not accessible in real-time.

But this is not to downplay the mental health impact of the pandemic on people.

Professor Ella Arensman – co-author on the study, the chief scientist of the National Suicide Research Foundation, and Ireland’s first professor of public mental health – told The Journal that developing strong mental health services is crucial to respond to those with urgent mental health needs.

Arensman said the researchers on the study believed there was likely a link to the adaptability of mental health services in countries where the risk of suicide had not increased.

Google Trends

The sharing of false claims about deaths comes at a time when people are actively seeking out information about deaths that they can trust.

In the past 18 months, Google searches for the term “deaths” in Ireland have peaked at around the same times that the daily reported Covid-19 deaths have been at their highest.

Google Interest Deaths Ireland last 5 years Relative popularity of Google searches for deaths in Ireland over the last five years Source: Google Trends

Google Interest Deaths Ireland 1 Jan 2020 to 1 June 2021 Relative popularity of Google searches for deaths in Ireland between 1 January 2020 and 3 June 2021 Source: Google Trends

Figures show that over the last five years, Google searches for “deaths” in Ireland were most popular in April 2020.

Since January 2020, the search term’s popularity peaked in April 2020, fell during the summer and autumn, and rose again in January 2021.

The popularity of the search term in Ireland aligns with the months where reports of daily Covid-19 deaths were at their highest.

Daily Deaths The number of Covid-19 deaths reported in Ireland per day

People are actively looking for information about deaths in Ireland, especially at times when reports of individuals who died with Covid-19 are high.

This gives bad-faith actors an opportunity to capitalise on uncertainties and fears – which means it’s important that people can access accurate information and know how to identify false claims.

DCU’s Eileen Culloty recommends that those who encounter posts online with false information should report it to the social media platform.

“It is important to report things in the same way that it’s important to hate speech when you see it, because these messages have to keep filtering back to the platform,” she says.

“If you’re unsure about something, you should look for reliable sources. If there’s a major story, it is going to be reported by journalists and the news media. If you’re only seeing a claim being discussed by someone online, that’s suspicious in itself.”

Similarly, John Flanagan of the CSO recommends that people “rigorously research something, check your sources, and make sure the sources are independent” where claims about Covid-19 use official data.

He notes that the CSO’s measure of excess mortality was “rigorously researched with respect to all people in Irish society and tried to give as much information as possible”.

“We count and classify. It’s very basic what we do, but it’s important that we do it rigorously and honestly and with integrity, and that’s what we do.”

Need help? Support is available:

  • Aware – 1800 80 48 48 (depression, anxiety)
  • Samaritans – 116 123 or email jo@samaritans.ie
  • Pieta House – 1800 247 247 or email mary@pieta.ie (suicide, self-harm)
  • Teen-Line Ireland – 1800 833 634 (for ages 13 to 18)
  • Childline – 1800 66 66 66 (for under 18s)

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