Fighting the Covid-deniers, one fact at a time

A new website vows to tackle what it calls Covid scepticism in whatever form it takes. Run by a team including a psychologist, a Conservative MP and a Superforecaster, Covidfaq.co takes aim at not only the varied (and multiple) dangerous sceptic theories, but also the celebrities who promulgate them online.

When is a sceptic not a sceptic?

As someone who used to run a group specifically for sceptics, I take umbrage at the idea that someone who promotes harmful, anti-lockdown ideas is a sceptic. To me, a sceptic is someone who examines the evidence behind ideas and claims and seeks the truth. My group of sceptics usually looked at the evidence behind claims of mystics, peddlers of alternative medicine and other harmful beliefs.

Covidfaq.co defines “Covid Sceptics” as those who continue to promote myths “that suggest Covid isn’t particularly dangerous, or that governments shouldn’t try to contain the virus with lockdowns and other distancing measures.”

The Covid sceptics, they explain, are not necessarily “sceptical of the existence of the coronavirus – but they are often sceptical about its effects”. Many have been in the news of late, with some even being arrested for bursting into hospitals, claiming that they are empty of patients and even trying to remove dying patients, denying they are close to death and claiming that vitamins will save them. East Surrey hospital recently was the scene of one of these episodes and a man who refused to wear a mask (because, he claimed, he was exempt), tried, with the help of a patient’s relative, to discharge a clearly very frail and sick man. Tobe Hayden Leigh, a 45 year old resident of Maidstone is currently still wanted for questioning in connection with the events which were broadcast on a Facebook Live. 

The claims of the Covid sceptic

One of the most common ideas trotted out by those who are scathing about lockdowns is that Coronavirus only affects a very small minority of the population; that most governments are over-reacting in their responses. People with that mindset believe that looking after the old, weak and vulnerable is not worth having our lives curtailed in such a manner. Besides being incredibly callous, it’s also ignoring the fact that an infection fatality rate of 0.5% actually means a hell of a lot of death. The prevalence of this view is reflected on the website, which puts it at the top of the list of myths to debunk, pointing out that 0.5% of the UK population is almost 300,000 dead. At the time of writing, however, we are already almost halfway there, at almost 122,000 dead. 

The second most common argument, that Covid only affects the elderdy, frail and vulnerable is yet another heartless yet incorrect argument. In the early days of the pandemic, however, this was very much the focus of how Covid would affect the population. The numbers of those who had died were announced, often with the addendum that they had “prior or underlying conditions”. What then, I asked Stuart Ritchie PhD, a psychologist at King’s College London and Covidfaq.co co-author, did he make of the fact that the government initially focused on the lack of effect on the young? This was one of the missteps, he agreed, in that there was a problem with the way it has been presented as relatively harmless in the young. The problem is, as more of us have been infected, the difficulties with Long Covid have become obvious and younger people are being affected.

The issue with telling young people that they have to adapt their behaviour to keep their fellow man safe is it’s not overly convincing. What was more convincing, he said, was to focus on messages that appeal to people’s more… self-involved nature (my terminology, not his!). So many of the messages we are being served are about saving the NHS and protecting others and ignore our fundamentally selfish nature. Inviting others to curtail their lives and livelihoods to save the lives of countless others we will never meet seems folly in favour of messaging that could increase compliance by dangling the carrot of some normality, it seems. So what can behavioural psychology tell us about behaviour and compliance and how much should it inform government policy?

Could behavioural psychology be the Tories’ saviour?

Ritchie recently wrote an article in which he criticised the efforts of an “international group of researchers” who had taken the time to “write a review of how psychology could be put to use: for instance, helping people understand threats, aiding in emotional coping, and fighting fake news.” The report’s aim was to “describe the quality of the evidence to facilitate careful, critical engagement by readers”. However, Ritchie argued, this did not transpire and, he argues, the emergence of Coronavirus has “sparked an outbreak of viral misinformation and sloppy research, revealing the glaring flaws in our scientific system”. 

Much was made of the so-called nudge unit in the early days of the pandemic, I noted in our call, but there doesn’t seem to be much scientific backing in the messaging and the way they are managing things. Could behavioural science give us more of the answers of how to improve compliance and improve messaging, I asked?

The Behavioural Insights Team (or nudge unit) had been thought to be responsible for the idea that the public would not respond positively to lockdown measures and have been blamed for the government’s much later lockdown that in other, similar countries. In fact, CMO Chris Whitty told the UK in a press conference he feared that “if we go too early people will understandably get fatigued and it will be difficult to sustain this over time”. In hindsight, this seems quite laughable, given how many days we have spent in varying amounts of lockdown since the first one in March 2020. However, BIT denies that they suggested behavioural fatigue and one has to wonder what they have been doing to influencing behaviour, given the amount of confusing, conflicting and sometimes puzzling government advice and messaging.

A few studies have been completed on the influence of “nudges” on population behaviour but the results haven’t been great. The head researcher of one of those studies said:

“We can only conclude that nudges activate good intentions, but people find it hard to follow through because of all the other influences on their behaviour that crowd out nudges on this occasion.”

The problem with behavioural science when it comes to things like controlling the population, Ritchie says, is that the evidence for various interventions or theories is just not strong enough. Most of the experiments that are applicable to the situation in which we now find ourselves have contradictory results or no results. The strongest evidence for what we should be doing are in conformity studies, the ones behind messaging like “Take your litter home. Other people do.” 

In theory, he says, we could be utilising psychology better, but in practice what works in a lab or fabricated setting for the purposes of an experiment do not translate to the real world. That view is borne out in the aforementioned studies on the effect of “nudges”; Dr Michael Sanders, at the Policy Institute of King’s College London said

“Controlling the spread of the coronavirus pandemic is as much about human behaviour as it is about the medical facts or government rules, so it’s no surprise that governments have turned to behavioural scientists for insights. Across two papers and six studies, our new findings cast doubt on the actual impacts of some of the most commonly used tools in the context of this crisis.”

Dr Michael Sanders, at the Policy Institute of King’s College London

So what about other known effects that inform human behaviour? One that many armchair psychologists may have heard of is the “backfire effect”. In their 2020 article “Searching for the Backfire Effect: Measurement and Design Considerations”, Thompson, DeGutis and Lazer defines the backfire effect as “when a correction leads to an individual increasing their belief in the very misconception the correction is aiming to rectify”. This seemingly counter-intuitive notion has been popular with many for how it makes sense when you consider the often futile nature of arguing on the internet because “someone is wrong”. The problem with the backfire effect though, is that it appears to be one of those theories that’s gained ground and is now accepted as fact, despite researchers being completely unable to replicate it.

Credit: XKCD

Celebrity authorities

What does seem to have some anecdotal evidence behind it, though, is the appeal to authority. When someone we respect tells us something, it would seem to naturally follow that we will put more stock in what they say than anyone else. That’s why we have celebrities in adverts trying to sell us new fragrances, cars or clothes and why I recently lauded the efforts of various BAME celebrities in trying to convince their peers to take the vaccine. This is why sites like Covidfaq.co are so important in tackling the issues of misinformation. Big names stretching from the TV and movie industry to Instagram-famous influencers and newspaper columnists constantly spout misinformation, myths and falsehoods about all kinds of aspects of the fight against Covid-19. 

Whilst Ritchie suggests that people who have spent hours and hours on websites written by self-professed lockdown sceptics will never be convinced, the ones who are more open to the actual evidence and truth behind the headlines are the ones to argue with. Most of the accounts who tackle him and his website co-authors, he says, are most likely “griefing”, or trolling him, but others are totally convinced they are right. Most of the time, they hide behind a smiley face emoticon profile picture, something fans of avid Covid sceptic Michael Yeadon, adopted. Ironically, says Ritchie, those who have adopted the smiley face as a symbol of their cause are the ones desperately trying to plaster on a smile rather than facing up to the reality of what we’re facing. The people who downplay Covid and the seriousness of the pandemic, he says, are usually working backwards from the conclusion they would like to be fact. They are reading the reality that fits with their prior beliefs. The aggression he receives from them online is, he says, wearying, but mostly he is able to brush off their arguments, especially when it’s glaringly obvious that they haven’t even deigned to visit and read the site.

The site itself is minimal, easy to navigate and written in a very accessible manner. Entirely self-funded by the team who made it, it’s also contributed to by Conservative MP Neil O’Brien, who has been an outspoken critic of his party and the government when it comes to the way they’ve handled things. He’s also taken colleagues to task when they’ve been guilty of propagating myths and falsehoods. The site sprung up from his long, involved Twitter threads and was born as a repository for all the information that was originally hosted there. Its creators took inspiration from an old website full of arguments countering creationist ideas. The hope for the site is that it will be used by people needing a reference point for countering claims online. They also hope that those who are not completely “Covid sceptic” might take a look and realise that the likes of Toby Young, Julia Hartley-Brewer and Allison Pearson, to put it in the kind terms of the website authors, are “misunderstanding” the situation. 

Can we go for a no-Covid misinformation approach? Just as likely as a no-Covid approach in terms of infections in the UK, but mitigating it seems to be the way forward.

Wear a mask, keep socially distanced and visit covidfaq.co – you might learn something new. 

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