At the height of the confinement, the majority of the population turned to the various social media platforms for entertainment and information. However, sticky videos, sometimes created by people posing as prestigious doctors, also circulated among the many humorous capsules, insinuating that messenger RNA vaccines against Covid-19 are dangerous and destroy our neurons.
This made Mathieu Nadeau-Vallée, a resident physician in anesthesiology with a degree in biomedical sciences and a doctor of pharmacology, react. The doctor, who is also starting a master’s degree in epidemiology next autumn, has set himself the mission of combating the misinformation that is spreading on social media, armed with the TikTok platform and his scientific training.
According to him, intelligently dissecting scientific studies is a very complex task, both for the general public and for experts. This barrier to the ability to interpret basic scientific literature causes some people, including health care workers, to share false news.
Although in a minority situation, these “experts” undermine public confidence in science and health professionals. Allowing them to develop critical thinking could save lives.
In your opinion, are Quebec doctors well prepared to decipher the scientific literature?
They are well-trained, and even exemplary, in clinical and epidemiological science. However, they are not necessarily trained to become laboratory scientists, experts in basic sciences. As part of the medical training itinerary, we do not teach reading and interpreting scientific literature on molecular biology, experimental immunology, genomics, or that related to drug development processes. These skills require additional graduate training, which some medical researchers do voluntarily, but not all.
This is one of the reasons, in my opinion, that some doctors share false news. It is important to remember that this is uncommon and that the affected doctors are called to order. In order to limit this phenomenon, more basic sciences need to be taught in medical school. In addition, it was my doctoral studies in pharmacology that provided me with the background I needed for my outreach activities. I learned to do a critical analysis of the scientific literature and to identify good sources of information about scientific experiments in the laboratory. When it comes to vaccines, viruses and RNA, this kind of understanding is essential.
What effect do you think the pandemic has had on public confidence in science?
I would like to know; I hope people continue to trust their healthcare professionals, even though a minority of them are involved in spreading fake news. The problem is that your voice is amplified, your message comes out very quickly. Doctors are good at doing their job, but just because someone is a doctor doesn’t mean they’re an expert in basic virology or genetics. Fortunately, most doctors have the rigor to specify that they cannot answer a question that falls outside their area of expertise. The College of Physicians has made it clear on several occasions that its members should not spread news that is not supported by science.
Do you think that this minority is destroying the work that other experts in the fight against misinformation are trying to do?
Yes, they undermine public confidence in health professionals and the life-saving vaccine. For example, Quebec doctor René Lavigueur has been on various radio programs to speak out against the vaccine and spread false information about it. Some doctors and scientists have also gone public, for example through the controversial collective Réinfo Covid, to spread nonsense. A Quebec pharmacist even claimed there, with her lab coat and professional shield, that dozens of children would die from the vaccine. My team had to work for hours to disprove these myths.
There are also several examples in Europe, for example with Didier Raoult, and in the United States, with Robert W. Malone. The misrepresentations of these health workers are irresponsible and can endanger people’s lives. In this context, misinformation can be deadly.
What fake news did you find most difficult to unravel?
French geneticist Alexandra Henrion-Caude is a renowned scientist. He has contributed to the scientific literature in an illustrious way. However, since the beginning of the pandemic, he has stated that the vaccine is a gene therapy, which modifies our genes, which is absolutely false. According to her, we should not administer these “injections”, which have the power to reprogram our genes and destroy our cells. His claims are harder to disprove because he has a credible title. As an expert, we hope you know what you’re talking about. People trust him. That is why his words are dangerous.
How can the general public detect this kind of misinformation?
It is crucial to identify the sources that are used to verify the information. Sometimes these sources only refer to a YouTube video, a Facebook post, or even a single person’s words. Okay, this person said that, but what data is it based on? Are peer-reviewed scientific publications? Or free interpretations of the individual himself? This is what I try to do in my capsules, and I was one of the first in Quebec to do it. Using a green screen, I put my fountains behind me; tables, graphs taken from scientific publications. Everything I say is verifiable by credible scientific sources.
What motivated you to fight misinformation on social media?
I have spent a lot of time on social media since the beginning of the pandemic, especially during confinement. I realized that people really needed to laugh and be entertained. So I started making humor capsules at TikTok. After more than a year on TikTok, I realized that a lot of misinformation was circulating. Initially, I settled for commenting on the videos trying to deny this fake news, and mentioning that I was a medical student. Instead of thanking me for reassuring them, people said they had sold me, that the pharmacists were paying me to say these things. I was very surprised and wanted to do more. So I started making capsules to fight misinformation, which were very successful. Over time, I’ve garnered more than 1.3 million “likes,” more than a hundred thousand subscribers to my various platforms, tens of millions of views, as well as hundreds of hesitant testimonials from people who go deciding to get vaccinated thanks to my efforts to deny it. .
Do you have any examples that illustrate how far false news can go?
In the fall of 2021, there were rumors that infectious disease doctor and microbiologist Richard Marchand of the renowned Montreal Heart Institute was not vaccinated and that vaccines were dangerous. To support their point, the authors of these videos had relied on an interview that Dr. Marchand had granted in February 2021, hence the start of vaccination. During a discussion, he had mentioned to Paul Arcand that he was not yet vaccinated. This extract was later resumed in September 2021, to make it appear that at that time, not so far away, it was not yet vaccinated. I then made the decision to write to Dr. Marchand, informing him that this false news was circulating about him. He was outraged and very surprised! So he wrote a long post to say it was wrong, and I also made a TikTok video to clear things up and reassure people.
Finally, in your opinion, is it inevitable these days to use social media to combat misinformation?
Yes, this is the best way to do it. This is where the people are, this is also where the fake news is circulating.
As Christie Wilcox, an American science journalist, puts it so well,
social networking platforms […] they are the means by which the world communicates and communicates. They are the medium and the place where we share information, with our friends, colleagues, acquaintances and everyone else.
That’s why science needs to be on social media.