Public Health Doctors Fight “An Avalanche of Conspiracy Theories and Misinformation”


Deputy Chief Medical Officer Dr Ronan Glynn


“END OF MEDICAL APARTHEID,” read the sign held by a man standing outside the Department of Health on Baggot Street in Dublin on an otherwise quiet Friday afternoon.

Inside, Deputy Chief Medical Officer Dr Ronan Glynn wraps up recording a video for social media ahead of the weekend asking people to be cautious while socializing amid the spread of the Delta variant – and wait until the full effect of vaccination is visible in the community.

Glynn, who has become a household name since the pandemic began in March, spoke to The newspaper on what he sees as an effective way to tackle false allegations surrounding the pandemic.

“We know that some groups are trying to spread disinformation and are ready to pounce on the next theme.”

The solution, says Glynn, is to be preventative to stop its spread.

“One of the steps we are taking that is internationally recognized as a way to overcome disinformation is to pre-mask, to make people aware of what might be happening and to recognize it when they see it.”

Two weeks ago, as the HSE prepared to roll out Covid-19 vaccines to young people, Glynn said the pandemic had provided a prime example of how easily disinformation can spread online and warned parents to prepare for the spread of untruths on social media.

Since March 2020, The newspaper and other media have debunked and verified many claims made around Covid-19.

Articles claimed 82% of vaccinated women miscarried in their first trimester, leaflets were distributed making false Covid-19 claims while videos were uploaded by prominent anti-lockdown activists .

For public health physicians like Glynn, the presence of false narratives has been critical in how he and others have approached their own communication of the facts to the public over the past 16 months.

“That’s why we’ve done so many press conferences, that’s why we make videos on social media, that’s why we try to be as transparent as possible in everything we do, because we think that if we are transparent, people can see the underlying rationale for decisions, ”he says.

“Indeed there have been many times where we are not sure what is going on and a key part of what we do is this admission, we say that the evidence is not there yet or that we do not know. not in which direction we’re going. “

But this uncertainty around Covid-19 is part of the reason the disinformation has spread, Glynn says.

“We live in this world of uncertainty and we communicate in this world of uncertainty and in the meantime we have anti-vaccine groups, anti-containment groups professing things with absolute certainty – Covid is no worse that flu, people who died with Covid were going to die in the next few months anyway, vaccines do this, vaccines do that – so it can be hard to get over that at times. “

Every day, Glynn’s team at the Department of Health and HSE receives updates on the latest social media topics, talking points and allegations made online. The data is provided to them by a company based in Dublin.

This in turn helps them spot the trends Glynn discusses with officials, he says.

The ministry, he points out, learned a lesson when Ireland started rolling out the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine in the early 2010s and began to see misinformation spread.

“With HPV the disinformation started and we reacted, on this occasion we did not wait to react, we proactively seek out disinformation and we continue to do it all the time,” explains Glynn.

Despite a number of organized and semi-organized individuals in Ireland spreading misinformation, Glynn is keen not to overstate their impact.

There is a very small group of people online who are very loud and post huge amounts of stuff, but there is a difference between the quantity and the quality of the impact. […] we know we have very high levels of trust among the public, the irish are very knowledgeable about where to get their information.

However, the social media claims have had an impact on people across the country – and even around the world – forcing difficult conversations between family and friends about the virus and the reluctance to vaccinate.

What does he think drove some people into rabbit holes of fake news, and does Glynn admit that health officials will never gain some people’s trust?

“The volume of information [during the pandemic] has been colossal and it can be quite easy for someone to end up taking a certain route online… it can become self-fulfilling.

“I also think none of us want to be where we’ve been for 18 months, we’re all looking for a way out. It’s no surprise that some people have gone online to research this, but again I’d be very careful to point out that this is a very small number of people, ”Glynn explains.

As the rollout of the vaccine in the country enters the final stages, Glynn says he and his colleagues at NPHET are researching false claims about the effect of vaccination on young people and parents.

One claim made right now is that Covid-19 vaccines impact a person’s fertility. “There is simply no evidence of this to date,” Glynn says.

“Likewise, we have seen some hesitation internationally about pregnant women getting vaccinated, but we have data per 100,000 pregnant women in the United States who have been vaccinated, no evidence of a safety signal, data from Scotland where over 4,000 pregnant women have been vaccinated, no evidence of safety signal.

“Most women and their partners know where to go for reliable information – their doctors and pharmacists, the HSE and their midwife.”

There will always be a small percentage of people who refuse a vaccine, no matter how much information you provide, says Glynn.

And on top of that, you’ve got this avalanche of conspiracy theories and misinformation, all on a scale we’ve never seen before.

The success of the rollout and drop-in centers last week is perhaps proof of how little misinformation is gaining here regarding the younger cohorts receiving a jab. Over 80% of adults in Ireland have at least one dose of the vaccine and over 73% of adults are now fully vaccinated.

The government, meanwhile, has indicated that there will be further easing of restrictions in September as the company gradually reopens.

However, the bogus claims won’t go away anytime soon, Glynn says, describing two key lessons he learned during the pandemic.

“Some people try to describe everything with certainty and you just can’t, and secondly, people try to present it as a false dichotomy, in black or white … it’s much easier to speak with certainty when you don’t have to worry about liability, ”says Glynn.

“From my point of view it comes down to communication, we don’t focus on the myth, we try to focus on reality and make sure that accurate information as confidently as we have at this time – there are communicated to the public. “

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There will always be viruses that can never be eradicated, says Glynn. “There’s no point where the misinformation is going to go away, we just keep adapting.”


Look where it came from. Is this someone you know? Do they have a source of information (eg HSE website) or are they just saying the information is from someone they know? Much of the fake news being broadcast right now comes from people claiming the posts are from a “friend.” Take a look for yourself – do a quick Google search and see if the information is reported elsewhere.

Second, get the whole story, not just a headline. Many of these messages contain vague information (“all the doctors in this hospital are panicking”) and do not mention specific details. It is often – but not always a sign – that it may not be correct.

Finally, see how you feel after reading it. Many of these fake messages are designed to freak people out. They deliberately manipulate your feelings to make you more likely to share them. If you feel panicked after reading something, check it out and see if it’s really true.

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Have you received a message on WhatsApp or Facebook or Twitter about the coronavirus you are not sure about and want us to look into? Send us a message or email and we’ll look into the possibility of demystifying it. WhatsApp: 085 221 4696 or Email: [email protected]

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