January 26, 2023

Fault Lines

The Expert Panel on the Socioeconomic Impacts of Science and Health Misinformation

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Misinformation can cause significant harm to individuals, communities, and societies. Because it’s designed to appeal to our emotions and exploit our cognitive shortcuts, everyone is susceptible to it. We are particularly vulnerable to misinformation in times of crisis when the consequences are most acute. Science and health misinformation damages our community well-being through otherwise preventable illnesses, deaths, and economic losses, and our social well-being through polarization and the erosion of public trust. These harms often fall most heavily on the most vulnerable.

The pervasive spread of misinformation and the damage it can cause underscore the need for reasoned, evidence-informed decision-making at both the personal and public level. Strategies and tools exist to help combat these harms, strengthen, and build trust in our institutions, and boost our ability to recognize and reject the misinformation we encounter.

Fault Lines details how science and health misinformation can proliferate and its impacts on individuals, communities, and society. It explores what makes us susceptible to misinformation and how we might use these insights to improve societal resilience to it. The report includes a model of the impacts of COVID‑19 misinformation on vaccination rates in Canada, producing quantitative estimates of its impacts on our health and the economy, and situating these within a broader context of societal and economic harms.

The sponsor:

Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada (ISED)

The question:

What are the socioeconomic impacts of science and health misinformation and disinformation on the public and public policy in Canada?

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Misinformation is an urgent societal concern that affects us all. Science and health misinformation exposes us to harms both personal and collective. On an individual level, it can leave us vulnerable to baseless fears, harm from preventable diseases, and exploitation by those who promote misinformation for profit or power. On a collective level, it erodes trust, fosters hate, undermines social cohesion, and diminishes our capacity for collective action. Misinformation damages social cohesion and collective action by undermining democratic discourse and distorting our understanding of the potential consequences of both our personal choices and policy options.

Addressing misinformation is a complex, multidimensional, and inevitably controversial undertaking because it raises fundamental questions about how we communicate, build relationships, and understand the world, as well as questions about our personal values and identity. Given the importance of this issue, it is imperative that we invest in understanding the sources and consequences of misinformation, and the strategies being used to combat it and reduce its harmful impacts.

Report findings

There is robust evidence supporting the contribution of science and health misinformation to the following individual and collective impacts:

  • Illness, poisoning, and death from unsafe health interventions and products
  • Illness and death from communicable and vaccine-preventable diseases
  • Money wasted on disproven products and services
  • Susceptibility to further and potentially more insidious forms of misinformation
  • Increased healthcare and societal costs due to vaccine-preventable diseases
  • Inaction or delayed public policy action

Misinformation contributes to a lack of adherence to public health measures and to vaccine hesitancy, which can result in vaccine-preventable disease outbreaks, increased healthcare costs, and elevated risk to the health and well-being of vulnerable populations. Misinformation also amplifies social divisions, which have resulted in overt conflict and violence, often directed at racialized communities. Furthermore, the consequences of science and health misinformation are not borne equally — for instance, negative health impacts during the COVID-19 pandemic have been found to disproportionately affect the well-being of racialized and other underserved communities, exacerbating existing inequalities.

Modelling COVID-19 Misinformation in Canada

Misinformation about COVID-19 is estimated to have cost the Canadian healthcare system at least $300 million in hospital and ICU visits between March 1 and November 30, 2021. This doesn’t include the cost of outpatient medication, physician compensation, or long COVID. Model outcomes also do not include broader societal costs, such as delayed elective surgeries, social unrest, moral injury to healthcare workers, and the uneven distribution of harms borne by communities.

Expert Panel

The Expert Panel on the Socioeconomic Impacts of Science and Health Misinformation