Winnipeg epidemiologist faces online threats, as concerns about COVID-19 misinformation deepen

Over the past seven months, the effects of COVID-19 have been real and far-reaching in Manitoba, yet some are trying to cast doubt on the pandemic and intimidate the scientists fighting the virus.

“I think this is a tiny portion of people on social media. But just like an infection, it can just keep spreading,” Epidemiologist Cynthia Carr, founder of EPI Research, told CTV News Tuesday.

Carr has become a familiar face to many Manitobans. However, her work has made her and her 18-year-old the targets of online threats and harassment.

“There were all kinds of messages, which were both myth and misinformation as well very personal, very aggressive attacks,” said Carr. “As a parent, I certainly didn’t like seeing those things directed towards my daughter.”

Carr is not alone. Scientists and public health officials across Canada have faced insults, intimidation, and death threats.

Last month, B.C.’s top doctor revealed she had to step up security.

“There are many people who don’t like what I do and feel quite able to send me nasty notes, leave phone calls, to harass my office staff,” said Dr. Bonnie Henry. “I’ve had to have security in my house. I’ve had death threats.”

EXPERTS SAY THERE IS ‘MISTRUST IN SCIENCE’

Experts say the hostility against public health officials is being fueled in part by online conspiracy theories.

“There is a lot of mistrust of science in the public,” Christen Rachul, University of Manitoba Director of Educational and Faculty Development, told CTV News.

She is part of a research team examining the rise of online misinformation related to COVID and said it has “exploded” since the emergence of COVID-19.

“When we start looking at misinformation and people making choices and acting upon misinformation it can actually cause harm. We’ve seen that in a fair amount of cases where people have tried treatments that are potentially harmful.”

The team recently published a study about online posts related to so-called immune-boosting to protect against COVID-19. It’s also researching how vaccines and masks are depicted on the internet.

As the science on COVID-19 keeps evolving, debunking conspiracy theories can become more difficult.

“The mask issue is a very good example. The messages feel confusing from the public’s perspective.”

At the start of the pandemic public health officials questioned the effectiveness of masks, but then later changed their advice.

Carr said it’s important that governments adapt and update their messaging.

“Transformational leadership says we learn as we go. It’s not the same as making a mistake or misinforming,” said Carr. “We’re continuing to learn.” 

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