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Ronan Glynn: Public health doctors battling 'avalanche of conspiracy theory and misinformation'

The Deputy Chief Medical Officer sat down with The Journal to discuss false claims around Covid-19.

004 Covid Committee (1) Deputy Chief Medical Officer Dr Ronan Glynn Source: LEAH FARRELL; RollingNews.ie

“END MEDICAL APARTHEID,” reads the sign held by a man standing outside the Department of Health on Dublin’s Baggot Street on an otherwise quiet Friday afternoon. 

Inside, Deputy Chief Medical Officer Dr Ronan Glynn is finishing up recording a video for social media ahead of the weekend asking people to be cautious socialising amid the spread of the Delta variant – and to wait for the full effect of vaccination to be seen in the community. 

Glynn, who has become a household name since the onset of the pandemic last March, spoke to The Journal about what he sees as an effective way of combatting false claims around the pandemic. 

“We know that certain groups are there trying to spread misinformation and are ready to pounce on the next theme.”

The solution, says Glynn, is being pre-emptive in stopping its spread. 

“One of the measures we take and one that is internationally recognised as a way of overcoming misinformation is to pre-bunk, to highlight to people what may be coming down the line and to recognise it when they see it.”

Two weeks ago as the HSE prepared to roll out Covid-19 vaccines to younger people Glynn said that the pandemic has provided a prime example of how easily misinformation can spread online and warned parents to prepare for untruths spreading on social media. 

Since March 2020, The Journal and other media outlets have debunked and fact-checked numerous claims made around Covid-19.

Posts have claimed that 82% of vaccinated women miscarry in their first trimester, leaflets have been distributed making false Covid-19 claims while videos have been posted online by prominent anti-lockdown activists

For public health doctors like Glynn the presence of false narratives has been critical in how he and others have approached their own communication of the facts to the public over the last 16 months. 

“That’s why we’ve done so many press conferences, that’s why we do social media videos, that’s why we try to be as transparent as possible in everything that we do, because we believe that if we’re transparent people can see the underlying rationale for decisions,” he says.

“Indeed there have been many times where we’re not sure what’s happening and a key part of what we do is that admission, we say the evidence isn’t there yet or we don’t know what direction we’re going.”

But that uncertainty around Covid-19 is partly why misinformation has spread, Glynn says. 

“We’re living in this world of uncertainty and we’re communicating in this world of uncertainty and meanwhile we’ve anti-vaccine groups, anti-lockdown groups who are professing things with absolute certainty – Covid is no worse than the flu, people who died with Covid were going to die in the next few months anyway, vaccines do this, vaccines do that – so it can be difficult at times to overcome that.”

Each day Glynn’s team at the Department of Health and the HSE receive updates on the latest social media themes, talking points and claims being made online. The data is provided to them by a Dublin-based company. 

This in turn helps them spot trends which Glynn discusses with officials, he says. 

The Department, he points out, learned a lesson when Ireland began rolling out the Human Papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine in the early 2010s and began to see misinformation spread. 

“With HPV the misinformation started and then we reacted, on this occasion we didn’t wait to react, we’re proactively looking for misinformation and we continue to do that all the time,” says Glynn. 

Despite a number of organised or semi-organised individuals in Ireland spreading misinformation, Glynn is keen to not overplay their impact. 

There’s a very small group of people online who are very vocal and who put out huge quantities of stuff but there’s a difference between quantity and quality of impact [...] we know we have very high levels of trust among the public, people in Ireland are very well-informed about where to get their information.

However, social media claims have impacted people across the country – and indeed worldwide – forcing difficult conversations between family and friends about the virus and vaccine hesitancy. 

What does he think has led some people down rabbits holes of false information, and does Glynn acknowledge health officials will never gain certain people’s trust?

“The volume of information [during the pandemic] has been colossal and it can be quite easy for someone to end up going down a certain track online…it can become self-fulfilling.

“I also think none of us want to be in the place we’ve been for the last 18 months, we’re all searching for a way out. It’s not surprising that some people have gone online to search for that but again I’d be very careful to emphasise that it is a very small number of people,” says Glynn. 

As the country’s vaccine rollout enters the end game, Glynn says he and his colleagues on NPHET are looking for bogus claims about the effect of vaccination on young people and parents. 

One claim being made at the moment is that Covid-19 vaccines impact a person’s fertility. “There’s simply no evidence at all for that to date,” says Glynn.  

“Equally we’ve seen some hesitancy internationally in relation to pregnant women getting vaccinated but we’ve data for 100,000 pregnant women in the United States who’ve been vaccinated, no evidence of any safety signal, data from Scotland where over 4,000 pregnant women have been vaccinated, no evidence of any safety signal.

“Most women and their partners know where to go for trusted information, it’s to their doctors and their pharmacists, to the HSE and their midwife.”

There will always be a small percentage of people that will refuse a vaccine no matter how much information you put forward, says Glynn. 

And on top of that then you’ve this avalanche of conspiracy theory and misinformation all which has been on a scale we haven’t seen previously.

The success of the rollout and of last week’s walk-in centres is perhaps evidence of how little traction misinformation is gaining here when it comes to younger cohorts getting a jab. Over 80% of adults in Ireland have at least one vaccine dose with over 73% of adults now fully vaccinated. 

The Government, meanwhile, has indicated that there will be a further easing of restrictions in September as society gradually reopens. 

False claims aren’t going away any time soon though, says Glynn, outlining two key lessons he has learned during the pandemic. 

“Some people try to portray everything with certainty and you simply can’t, and secondly people try to portray things as a false dichotomy, either black or white…it’s much easier to speak with certainty when you don’t have to concern yourself with the responsibility,” says Glynn. 

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“From my perspective it comes back to communication, we don’t focus on the myth, we try to focus on the reality and ensure that accurate information with as much certainty as we have at that point in time is communicated to the public.”

There will always be some viruses that can never be eradicated, says Glynn. “There’s no point where misinformation is going to go away, we just continue to adapt.”

STOP, THINK AND CHECK 

Look at where it’s coming from. Is it someone you know? Do they have a source for the information (e.g. the HSE website) or are they just saying that the information comes from someone they know? A lot of the false news being spread right now is from people claiming that messages from ‘a friend’ of theirs. Have a look yourself – do a quick Google search and see if the information is being reported elsewhere. 

Secondly, get the whole story, not just a headline. A lot of these messages have got vague information (“all the doctors at this hospital are panicking”) and don’t mention specific details. This is often – but not always a sign – that it may not be accurate. 

Finally, see how you feel after reading it. A lot of these false messages are designed to make people feel panicked. They’re deliberately manipulating your feelings to make you more likely to share it. If you feel panicked after reading something, check it out and see if it really is true.

TheJournal.ie’s FactCheck is a signatory to the International Fact-Checking Network’s Code of Principles. You can read it here. For information on how FactCheck works, what the verdicts mean, and how you can take part, check out our Reader’s Guide here. You can read about the team of editors and reporters who work on the factchecks here.

Have you gotten a message on WhatsApp or Facebook or Twitter about coronavirus that you’re not sure about and want us to check it out? Message or mail us and we’ll look into debunking it. WhatsApp: 085 221 4696 or Email: answers@thejournal.ie.

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