Hearing Exposes Widespread Harm Caused by Coronavirus Misinformation

Nov 17, 2021
Press Release
Experts Provide Testimony on Bad Actors Profiting from Misinformation and Interventions Needed to Safeguard Public Health

Washington, D.C. (November 17, 2021) Today, the Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis, chaired by Rep. James E. Clyburn, held a hearing to examine the harm caused by coronavirus misinformation and identify steps needed to ensure Americans have access to and faith in accurate public health information.  Today’s hearing builds upon the Select Subcommittee’s investigation into online entities pushing coronavirus misinformation and facilitating prescriptions for unproven treatments.

Chairman Clyburn said in his opening statement:

“By feeding the American public falsehoods about the virus, vaccines, and treatments, these bad actors make it harder to distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate sources of health informationand harder to know how to protect ourselves and our loved ones from the coronavirus. … We must find ways to stop those who seek to profit by sowing doubt, spreading falsehoods, and exploiting fears amongst the American people.  By encouraging the use of bogus treatments, these groups, along with many others, have put American lives at risk and prolonged the pandemic.  To effectively curb the spread of the virus and safeguard American lives and wallets, we must curb the spread of misinformation.  Success in this fight will increase vaccine confidence and bolster support for evidence-based public health measures.  And it will protect Americans from being misled into spending their hard-earned money on products that are useless at best and harmful at worst.”

Today’s witnesses were Dr. Kolina Koltai, Postdoctoral Fellow at the Center for an Informed Public at University of Washington Information School; Dr. Jay Kennedy, Assistant Professor at the School of Criminal Justice and Assistant Director of Research at the Center for Anti-Counterfeiting and Product Protection at Michigan State University; Dr. Jeffrey Aeschlimann, Associate Professor at the School of Pharmacy and Adjunct Associate Professor at the School of Medicine at University of Connecticut (UConn); María Teresa Kumar, President and Chief Executive Officer at Voto Latino; and the witness invited by the Minority, Dr. Jayanta “Jay” Bhattacharya, Professor in the Department of Health Policy and Senior Fellow at the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research at Stanford University.

Members and witnesses provided the following remarks during the hearing:

The Spread of Misinformation Regarding the Coronavirus and Coronavirus Vaccines Has Endangered American Lives and Set Back Efforts to Overcome the Pandemic

  • Dr. Aeschlimann explained that misinformation “seeds doubt and skepticism in the minds of people that may be less likely to understand or believe reputable research data that shows that certain things are beneficial either for preventing or treating disease.  It can cause direct patient harm.”  He added that misinformation has a “very widespread impact on patient health and on citizens’ pocketbooks as well.”
  • In response to a question from Rep. Carolyn Maloney on whether tech companies are doing enough to monitor misinformation and remove it from their platforms, Dr. Koltai said:  “They’ve gotten better, but certainly not enough. ... In an age of a pandemic, where we’re still fighting the disease and where thousands and thousands of Americans’ lives are still being lost, anyone can go onto these platforms and find misinformation.”

Witnesses Shared Stories of Individuals Impacted by Coronavirus Misinformation

  • Dr. Aeschlimann provided a firsthand account of seeing an unvaccinated patient admitted to his hospital with a severe coronavirus infection who had delayed treatment for a week and instead obtained prescriptions for both ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine despite worsening symptoms.  Dr. Aeschlimann testified that the “patient’s severe COVID-19 infection and costly hospitalization could have been prevented in at least two ways:  either by vaccination before the illness occurred or by the prompt administration of proven effective therapies.”
  • Ms. Kumar related her own mother’s concerns about the safety of the coronavirus vaccines after receiving links to misinformation videos from friends and family that “all had a common theme:  ‘Don’t trust the vaccine.  Don’t trust the doctors and don’t trust the government that is trying to inject you and harm you.’”  Ms. Kumar recounted that her mother expressed doubts about getting vaccinated after seeing these videos, explaining that “it took me almost seven weeks to finally get her to take that vaccine.”

The Monetization of Coronavirus Misinformation, and the Culpable Online Entities and the Platforms that Enable Them, Must Be Stopped

  • Dr. Kennedy testified that the pandemic has created “an opportune environment for fraud to proliferate,” and explained that “Covid-19 related frauds are an especially wicked problem because of their scope; the use of false, inaccurate, and misleading information; and people’s general fear of the unknown.”
  • Dr. Koltai noted the lack of content moderation by digital platforms, stating that “accounts that spread viral misinformation continue to go unchecked.”  She urged:  “At minimum, there needs to be a greater effort from social media platforms to limit the algorithmic spread and promotion of misinformation on their platforms, especially from prominent influential accounts.”
  • Dr. Aeschlimann warned about dangers from “groups on social media platforms that promote ivermectin and other inadequately studied medications for COVID-19 infection.”  He explained that groups promoting unproven therapies online not only “directly enable” people in receiving unproven and potentially dangerous treatments, but have also been “verbally attacking pharmacies and pharmacists on social media for refusing to fill prescriptions for unproven COVID-19 drugs.”

Coronavirus Misinformation Has Had a Significant Impact on Communities of Color

  • Asked by Chairman Clyburn whether certain communities are disproportionately affected by misinformation, Dr. Kennedy emphasized that “the harms that come from [coronavirus-related] fraud … are not equally distributed throughout society and the focused nature of them can create disproportionate harms within those marginalized communities.”  
  • Ms. Kumar testified that “more than 132,000 Latinos have died from COVID-19, close to three times more than any others compared to the white community. … We know that [misinformation] is something that is not only lethal, but it also is weaponizing. … We need the platforms to act, and we need them to act immediately.”
  • Ms. Kumar praised the Biden-Harris Administration for providing critical funding to help overcome vaccine hesitancy in communities of color, stating:   “[T]he only way that we are going to get through this is through the investment that President Biden is doing to make sure local communities are at the front lines and giving individuals important information so they can no longer be vaccine hesitant.”

Click here to view the full hearing.

Click here to read the Chairman’s opening statement.

Click here to read more about the Select Subcommittee’s ongoing investigation into America’s Frontline Doctors and SpeakWithAnMD.com.

 

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117th Congress