Medical misinformation, COVID-19, Big Data and Black Lives Matter
This is an ABC podcast. This pandemic is biological. It's psychological. Has Your head feeling right now? It is definitely social, and it is most certainly political. You know living in Massachusetts? We have some bit of a liberal blinder and a lot of ways I think that we are very cognizant of the very poor federal response that has been happening at the national level here in the United States in it is extremely frustrating. It's a big part of our job to be able to advise decision makers, and when decision makers don't want to listen to what you have to say. It really does result in catastrophe, and we are definitely seeing that in many parts of the United States. Welcome to science fiction on medical misinformation, big data and black lives matter in this time of pandemic is in the months since these based of a virus heat. My two guests have occupied all of those worlds all at once. The TESHA Mitchell with you and joining me at two superstars of the world of digital epidemiology. They are mining digital data from all sorts of unusual sources, some very familiar to you to help us. Make sense of things dot Miami. Gender is a computational epidemiologist at Harvard, medical school and Boston. Hospitals Computational Health Informatics Program Adam Dan is associate professor in Biomedical Informatics and Digital Health at the University of Sydney. Etem part of your work as you suggested, investigates have health misinformation sporades on social media platforms in online forums, hell potent. has this pandemic being in terms of appendix of misinformation as well I? kind of feel like appendix Storms I'll take of misinformation for for a few reasons. Really I mean I just the sheer volume of of information that's being generated imposs- on. This some quite interesting studies have been done in computational social science to show that as we increase the volume of information that exposed to the influx throughout timelines, and makes it hotter and hotter for us to be able to discern what's actually credible, and so we're more likely to pass on less credible information to our friends and family and people paper now social networks, which makes it much easier to spread misinformation. And just as an example in a weeping collecting tweets about things like vaccines, all sorts of stuff for a long time, and says the first case where we were completely unable to collect all of the tweets that were related to of the pandemic. You know just attempting to collect it. We constantly ran into all of our API limits. We're unable to do all the stuff that we wanted to do so this absolute flood of information all the time, so there's too much data to work with yeah. Yeah and that makes it really hard for people to discern what's actually high quality information? What's credible information so that they tend to pass on things that may not be credible at all, but this two hundred reasons that I think that this has been kind of the perfect storm uptake of misinformation. You know there's a lot of politicization. When she mentioned already in a for example, it was reasonably obvious to those of us who looked at quality of clinical studies around the drug hydroxy chloroquine. that it was unlikely to be useful on the pandemic that it was some serious flaws in the way, the evidence was being discussed and the the way the study's being done, but when things became politicized around the drug, they quickly became sort of entrenched in the partisan communities that exist online and becomes much much hotter to to use elements to change people's attitudes on something has become politicized I. Think the other reason why is that? We had seen what I think. People become more susceptible to being affected by misinformation and letting it affect the way they make decisions in their behaviors when they're more concerned when anxious when I have a loss of control. In a feelings of uncertainty and loss of control are associated with conspiracy beliefs and. The fact we have is invisible threat that his CO. MAINTAIN A book. Such big differences in the way governments are responding stoneleigh created in Iraq kind of environment from certain feelings. Of Powerlessness, yeah, I mean. A global pandemic is the ultimate loss of control. Isn't it and it's tricky to know. Who attuned to in terms of expertise because science and medicine. Rising to Cape Up with all the variables with the very basics of this virus. Yeah, look absolutely right, and you know we have this kind of environment where there's just too much information making positive for us to tell the difference between what's credible and what isn't we've got strong. Citation makes hard to change people's attitudes, but evidence and we're in this situation. People find misinformation more salient, and then we'll likely to kind of absorb it, and then let it affect decision making, and it's been a really interesting to watch, but it's also sort of a ended a lot of the work that we try and do to study misinformation Maya Atom. maxine interesting observation there that. Misinformation, during this pandemic hasn't just sprung from conspiracy, theories or wellness theorists are wellness gurus. It's coming also from. At least science from scientists during this pandemic to an extent, because research is being done in a record time to try and chase down this corona virus, early results are being shared before they are robustly peer reviewed on so-called preprinted service for all to see. The media is picking up those papers before really they've been properly vetted by scientific colleagues, so it's an interesting phenomenon, isn't it? It is at is definitely an unprecedented time for the development of new scientific discovery and I think that one of the things that's very challenging. Science by design is meant to reinvent itself with every passing day. What we know today should not be what we knew yesterday. It should be better more refined more credible, and I think that because that entire process is not public in a way that it perhaps was not before or at least was not given the attention by the public that it is being given now I think that that definitely influences the way that a lot of early findings are now being interpreted and I think that even early findings that were credible and are now being. Not necessarily questioned, but are being overtaken by newer better science for scientists. This feels like part of the scientific process, and for the general public it can instead instill fear, uncertainty and mistrust, and I think that's one of the things that perhaps most challenging about all of this, because I think that scientific transparency has a lot of great assets, and it can really make the public feel more involved in the scientific process or like I, like to say, put the public back into public health, but at the same time. I think that the way that we communicate early findings really needs a lot of work, so one of the things that I've generally been encouraging. Is this idea that we should be looking at the body of work and aggregate at any given time to take everything that we've learned together so as to not let anyone potentially poorly designed study influenced too much how we believe or how we feel about the ongoing pandemic and I think that these sorts of philosophical changes and science are likely going to be pretty important and the months and years to come, but it is interesting, isn't it? Meyer watching the way which. Research, even if it is partial or incomplete or just part of an iterative process of understanding covid nineteen had operates in the body or what treatments we might use to to curb. have how that science gets amplified by public figures. You've looked at that as well with your colleagues when president trump. He says in in, but nominated that we might want to investigate injecting. Disabled. They was an incredible amplification across the world, and you manage to track some of that. How did you do that? Yes, there was so. This is a study in which we used. Google trends to get a sense of how people were responding perhaps to president trump's comments in so one of the things that we like to do with Google search trends especially is that we like to use it as a portal into the kinds of things that people are interested in the end. It's sounds various. Yes. No it's I mean. For you know design combination of things I. Don't know how much you can read into it sometimes, but this was extremely interesting. One of the things that we found was that falling. These comments entrust in misuse of disinfectants increased dramatically. Now can we attribute these to president trump's comments? No, it's not a a causal relationship, but what we can tell you is that it wasn't just interested. In disinfectants that increased interest in poison control centers also increase shortly after interest in misuse of disinfectants increase that combined with the fact that our poison control centers in the United States reported quite a few cases of. Related Abuse Disinfectant related poisonings. It's a pretty damning set of data when you start looking at the broader picture and I think in many ways we're trying to understand just how these sorts of comments are affecting the way that people are behaving in their day to day lives, and what kinds of comments are perhaps leading to actions that might have deleterious consequences etem. What's also clear? Is that groups who are already adept at sowing seeds of doubt around science and medical evidence to their to their followers, and we might take anti VEX group says one example have also leaped onto the covered conspiracy theory bandwagon. Leveraging off this pandemic in all sorts of ways. To further their own interest is that something that your team are observing or attempting to study? We haven't been looking in particular at how and you've axel went back. Saying critics looking at covid nineteen as an opportunity, but certainly true that the people who are most vocal about vaccination in the negative certainly at taking advantage of things like this, you know they are expert at using these kinds of guerrilla marketing, you know where they try and be as vocal as possible to be as influential as possible. We know that they can have an effect, but you have to remember that they still adjust the a relative handful of people who particularly vocal. When we look at anti vaccine sentiment when we look at a vaccine, hasn't Sam Vaccine Confidence in the population? Awesome, what we're really more interested in is the people who have a vaccine hesitant that haven't made up their minds, the not entirely show, and I make up a much much larger proportion of the population, and so the what makes the work that my team does quite different from a lot of other do I study social media and anti vaccine sentiment is that we look at the kinds of information consumption patents of just your everyday cottam social media uses an turns out that actually misinformation and this kind of anti vaccine rhetoric is often kind of. Embedded in these kind of echo chambers that exist, and it doesn't really make that much of what we as typical uses might say offer nesting their own echo chambers, patting each other on the back in most cases interesting so while these things can certainly have an impact I think we tend to focus on. This handful of people much more often than we really really should sometimes is just to ignore them and I think as. Aspects to misinformation that we really need to think about if we're trying to deal with a in the future. And I think that's related to the idea of knowing when to act so for example is case where you know someone might try and spread some misinformation, but they don't really have an audience for and what you can do by calling them out is actually to amplify it and calls it. The spread says the new really wanted to so that can be a case where we need. Need to have kind of like a library of misinformation, so we know what characteristics likely to to see, misinformation spread and become comfortable, and then only those cases when we would want to act and intervene and cold out and make a difference to try and stop it from spreading. Yes, it's very interesting, isn't it? That outrage on social media platforms only serves to amplify I wonder. To what extent the algorithms for example of facebook of Youtube of instagram complicit here in in in making those connections I to mean if you go to. High profile circle wellness bloggers. Pages. Algorithms continued and all sorts of rabbit holes. Make all the connections to other people. You might be interested in in following viewing rating, and they are often account. That's often a rabbit hole of conspiracy. Theorists wellness blows and q a Non. Followers and Algorithms of social media platforms surface and amplify things that you might never have found and I. I wonder if this has been happening with covid nineteen as well. It probably has I think that certainly true of particular platforms and I know some work that's been done on instagram and Youtube to look at these these kinds of potential to full down into rabbit holes. I suspect that that it has happened for Covid nineteen justice has happened for every other seeing. That's being interesting. People tend to jump on whatever they can jump on going to get them the attention. That I really want donate to spread their messages. I mean that's that's probably not even necessarily true social media. It's probably true social networks. Back in history as well it makes sense to jump on the things that people thinking about talking about and trying to to you know that topical as a way of trying to spread your message, or in some cases just make money because you have to remember that a lot of these wellness. Alternative Medicine Gurus or whatever they might be often. They're just to make money. University of Sydney's Adam Dunn and Harvard Medical School's Miam- agenda crunch, mighty big numbers to make sense of mighty big health questions and controversies there my guests on science fiction today on ABC Radio National and on the PODCAST. It's easy to criticize social media platforms for all the ills in society, Meyer. You have had a very interesting experience during this pandemic, your energetic twitter, then tastic twitter. In mid March you sent had a single tweet that has had an extraordinary impact. Tell us about that tweet, and what might divided it marches last time I saw the inside of my office that is true for many many people and as I was starting to set up my Home Office in March. One of the things that I noticed on twitter was the sheer number of individuals who had been booted from their labs because they could no longer go into. Do their experiments I started to wonder if there was a way that we could potentially garner all of the energy that people were kind of sitting on twiddling their thumbs with at home in a way that might be productive in our pursuit against covid nineteen. It wasn't just twiddling their thumbs when there was in the has been incredible fear and grief as postgraduate students post. Docs actually consider having to consider walking away from the. Lab Work Results. Say that much of that is more recent because I think back in March, it was unclear how long this would last. It's been several months later and I think now. We know that the the thing is not going anywhere, but I think back in March. There was still quite a bit of hope that we might be able to turn the ship around this. Batas of of energy where folks wanted to feel useful in didn't know how that's why I decided. Decided to put out this tweet where I where I called for volunteers who wanted to use their free time to start answering research questions about covid nineteen through kind of a cross institutional collective platform that would allow for a free exchange of ideas, methods and disciplinary expertise. It really was remarkable just to see how much interest this volunteer initiatives garnered and a couple of days we had more than one hundred applicants. The response responses been extraordinary that one single tweet. And with that, the covid nineteen dispersed volunteer network was born at just give us a sense of the range of people who responded and where they responded from. It's a beautiful thing. We got applicants from really all around the world we have dozens of countries represented dozens of primary native languages represented. We have a lot of epidemiologists that's for sure, but we have computer scientists and computer programmers to. It's this beautiful kind of situation where an epidemiologist who has a very clear understanding for example, say of the spatial epidemiology of covid nineteen can link up with a computer programmer and start developing a really beautiful online interface to make clearer where this thing is going, and how fast it includes questions by what does the work from home policy or sick? Leave policy in a given states biggest employers. How does that impact whether or not people? People feel like they can stay at home. When a stay at home order is given, it includes things like folks who are invested and getting their education in criminal justice in are interested in the facts of Covid nineteen on the criminal justice system that's been a really big political issue here in the United States and some states around the US we have seen more leniency in terms of releasing prisoners who have committed nonviolent crimes. One of the things that we want to understand is why are some states? Some governors more likely to make this choice than others, and can other governance systems be Najd in the right direction to make these sorts of choices. Would release is at Meyer is to release people so that they re at risk of getting coveting in the same right and using all sorts of interesting data streams mobility data from smartphones. Google search trains, you know, give us some examples of the sources of data that you kind of pulling together pint a global story paint a global. Sorry of this pandemic. Definitely so google search trends for sure mobility data from different sources including Yuna cast which provides county level. I'm ability metrics here in the United States and things like twitter data, which is Adams area of expertise, there've been a number of publicly available data sets that have been released for coronavirus research in the last couple of months, and then I think one of my favorites. Favorites is media data so one of the things that we use a lot of are these massive tech space Corpora of newsmedia data from around the world to help understand how news media are shaping the conversation around Covid nineteen and how that might be affecting the way that people feel about covid nineteen so a lot of really in the way that we like to. To say at non traditional data, sources data services that may not typically used for public health research, but are very valuable in terms of insights that they can provide from a socio behavioral point of view. Is it true that you're also using therapy? People Psychological Therapy session transcripts Dr Dentist of course. Yes, the this is a really exciting a newer project that we're working. Working on right now and it's it's been fascinating to see how Cova eighteen has been correlated with different mental health effects in the United States Senate that the another very intriguing example of how big data in the form of these transcripts can really lend a lot of insights things that we may not know to look for and I think that one thing that. Has Been. Really fascinating is really thinking about this from the point of view, not only as an epidemiologist who cares about the effects of this pandemic. long-term on People's health and wellbeing on their mental health and mental wellbeing, but also from a computing point of view, because these are some very interesting, natural language, processing problems, and by having access to psychologist since I Cairo trysts in mental health experts who really know their stuff, it's It's almost like we are really kind of defending against the possibility that we may get something wrong, and I think that that's really the the goal for these sorts sorts of interdisciplinary networks. Is Adam Dunn you. You've used tools like machine learning to study this spread of false health, information and health conspiracy theories in the like this is all true, and I wanted to go back actually and talk about one of things that is doing this actually so interesting space, and you know one of these that we talk about law in in artificial intelligence, machine, learning and data, science fannous, and how we're trying to make sure that the things that we do might the exacerbating biases in the work. that. We do so what you're talking about here. Is that many of the world's algorithms machine learning algorithms are learning from bodies of information that have biases and prejudices racist sexist excetera built into them, because that's the daughter of the world that they're extracting from, so it's about kind of almost rethinking how we teach how we educate those machine learning algorithms. That's right. Right but my argument is that that's actually not enough. I actually think that some of the work that mayes doing what I would like to see a lot more often. The wealth are whether or not we can find ways, not just fair, but things where we can make sure that the news technologies that we develop a designed in ways that actually improve education. and focus on empowering marginalized and vulnerable groups, and do things like improve their access to care or to fix things in the justice system, or to improve how we manage mental health corps vulnerable. That's exactly the reason why something like the. Disposal into your research network is so important, and it all comes down to the diversity of the voices that are insights as well as the diversity of expertise that can bring in these kinds of problems to the front to solve amendment in ways that are not just fair equitable. What you doing with this volunteer? Network is actually challenging. The traditional way at scientific research happens, but also, and this is very important to you. WHO GETS TO DO IT? Tell us about that you've synced. This gets to this matter that so much of science, and so much of the academy is very much relegated to a few institutions who get to have a say about. About -absolutely everything and unfortunately these few institutions are very white and very male, and I think that this really impacts the kinds of questions that are allowed to get precedence so when we allow ourselves to really expand the kinds of scientific voices, we include in our research I. think that this allows us to ask questions that are very important and I think that of. Absolute criticality, our personal and important to the scientists themselves. So this idea that when you're a person of color researching the effects of covid nineteen on people of Color is something that you feel personally passionate about I think that this is a very very important piece of all of this, and when you are studying a given group, you need to have membership from. From that group within the team of researchers who are studying this question, not only within that team, but leading that team, every single step of the way helping formulate these questions helping formulate how we answer them, ensuring that we don't create less equity than what we had coming in that. We create more from the work that we're doing and I think that. This really gets to this question. Because ultimately you know when when I think about what contributions volunteer can make to this network. What I care about is what they can do. I don't care where they're from. I don't care where they went to school I. Care about what they can do, and whether or not, they're willing to treat space as an equitable phase where every identity matters and we're marginalized identities get to have a voice. In the way that scientific research has all continues to operate, no, it has not been and the effects that this can have on a young person of color who is just entering the academy who may have just finished their graduate education and doesn't know the next steps a see that this is one of the ways that we can make it feel like. Yes, academia is an auction for you. You are a skilled scientist. You have the ability to formulate research questions, and to figure out a design to answer them, and you have the ability to seek out the kinds of resources and partnerships. You need to make this happen because ultimately. We're not going to be able to change the face of the academy unless we make the Academy of place where people of color women marginalized, genders really feel that they can make a difference that they can have a voice and I think that that's largely what we're trying to do here in some sense, because this volunteer network focused on the pandemic has been born off and operated outside of traditional institutions. Do you think that's what's enabled this? Paradigm, shift Yes, absolutely I think this idea that we are all online now, so there's really no benefit to only working with my colleague. Who is down the hall from me is a really big shift that I. Think should be applauded and we should take this forward. These of extraordinary that in the middle of a pandemic black lives matter protests took to the streets and social media worldwide him, and what we've seen as part of that is scientists and scholars and students. Calling out racism in universities. I! I've been incredibly moved by the Hashtag black in the ivory. which has been roaring ranging across all social media platforms, people giving their life stories about the prejudices, diving candidate in universities and learning institutions. I wonder how. You've felt rating their as you. You are not a white man. He signed. Rapidly definitely. I think it is. It has been a very inspiring kind of Synon- to see these sorts of stories, really starting to take hold and I think that the next steps beyond the soon. I speak about this frequently with my minority colleagues is. How do we create? Eighties for individuals who would not typically be given the opportunity is that in many ways I personally believe objectively they deserve. These are skilled individuals who deserve to have an outlet or their skills, and I think that that's a really interesting piece of all of this where four even within the context of the network we do try to prioritize minority researchers and marginalized gender researchers because I think these are the groups that can most benefit from a network like this I mean the the old boys club in network has existed for a very long time for white men and we don't have something similar to that for. Black Indigenous people of color researchers or for marginalized genders, and I think that this is precisely the direction that we need to start moving in in terms of creating spaces that not only empower these researchers to be able to ask questions that are vitally important to equity, but also give them space that is safe where they don't need to be explaining their identity to every last person in the room and I think when you are. are at a university or a lab space, or there is nobody in the room that even remotely looks like you. That can be very very disconcerting and I personally have been in many situations where I have been the only woman. The only person of color are often both at the same time and given room, and these are very uncomfortable. Real moments for researchers who come from minority groups and I wonder how you hear these. As well at face, value a white man in science. Look absolutely. I think the smartest thing that. Science can do is to know when to sit down and let the smart people coal. And I think that's probably. What I should be doing now, let me just echoed Mayes thoughts and say. Look at its. It's definitely not easy to be an academic. If you're the first person in your family to attend university if you don't speak English at home, if you don't look the other academics and you'll sealed in place what you work or if the choices that you make of being able to afford rent. Look after your family -cation when I was little I went to. To a public school last doubted university on Sixteen and I started a PhD when I was twenty in the scholarship that I got. It wasn't much, but it was the most stable income that I hadn't at the time. It was the most highest paying jobs. Most money had as well I. Don't know whether it's still possible to get to that point in the same way now. Academia has changed so dramatically and the expectations that we have people who want to begin journeys academia. That's the now so high. This will miss no chance that someone who doesn't see themselves. Reflected in academia, already would be would be given the cons of opportunities the that they need to be able to move into academia into become an academic now so i. really do worry that academia could potentially become less of us, but I think that people like my on cranking initiatives like. Like this whole anti-recession network I just absolutely critical, and all all we can really do from the side of the planet to just applaud the work that she's doing. It could go either way post covered. Couldn't there is ever going to be a post cove in lives one one can hope, but it could create opportunity to rethink the conserve hallowed institutions of the academy of the wine, which science gets done and distributed, and who gets to contribute or could be a kind of. Reinforcement of the privilege of people in the academy, and having of always been done this is it seems a turning point on multiple fronts. Look I really hope so here in Australia is. It's not entirely clear what's going to happen one of the problems we have at the moment. Is that the amount of money that would be normally flowing into into universities is certainly. Certainly not the optimistically. I'd like to think that we can make serious changes in the way that we we do academia. The exists in the structures that exist in academia Ustralia, but I do worry that as the money starts to dry up, the opportunities will also start to dry out, and there's a Chinese will stay with the people who already have the how. Am I. Just WanNa come back to the question of misinformation. And Hell you see the challenge ahead for. In a sense responding to misinformation around this covid nineteen pandemic when information is flowing free and fast. The challenges seem to be immense I. Mean you use El-Sayed? The data flow is massive. So where do you start? How do you what? Do you sees to bring clarity to you know it's going to be a long term effort, and there's one trick that we have you now toolkit. The is going to make be difference between whether or not misinformation spreads, and causes in society, and that is through education, the best tools of the ones that empower people to be critical of what they read online that get them to think about whether or not they really wanNA shabby information that they're reading and that really focused. Focused on empowering people, especially people from marginalized vulnerable populations to to look at what they read to understand what they read, and to really think about it before they go ahead and act on it, and so I think that that is a slow difficult complex process, but we really need to bring that level of education, often critical appraisal skills up in the community, and that is going to be the the definitive answer that solves the problem of misinformation regardless of the volume of it. Regardless of 'em how many people? Deliberately trying to spread it regardless of whether or not people trying to confuse the population or Talking points all whether misinformation politicized or going to come down to education. What do we teach our kids when they first start school about? Critical reading of the material that they see their day to day lives understanding that perhaps this really does need to start early given how much information children and young adults are exposed to now, and this information is only growing exponentially point so really thinking about. How do we intervene early for a brighter future ahead? It's a tricky challenge Marin Adam. Thank you so much joining me. Thank you for having us. Dr, Myra Magenta from had medical school and Boston Children's Hospital and Associate Professor Adam Dunn from the University of Sydney more info about them and their work. On the science fiction website and there's a link to share with us here at ABC. Science examples of covid nineteen misinformation. You've spotted on the Tesha. Mitchell thanks to co producer John Lee talk to me on twitter at Natasha. Catching Knicks wake. A. You've been listening to an ABC podcast. Discover more great ABC podcasts live radio and exclusives on the ABC listen APP.