A lasting legacy of Covid-19: Far-right platforms spreading health myths

WASHINGTON – Not long after Mr Randy Watt died of Covid-19, his daughter Danielle sat down at her computer, searching for clues as to why the smart and thoughtful man she knew refused to get vaccinated.

She pulled up Google, typed in a screen name he used in the past and discovered a secret that stunned her. Her father, she learned, had a hidden, virtual life on Gab, a far-right social media platform that traffics in Covid-19 misinformation.

And there was another surprise: As he fought the coronavirus, he told his followers that he was taking ivermectin, a drug used to treat parasitic infections that experts say has no benefit – and in fact can be dangerous – for patients with Covid-19.

“On two occasions, I coughed so hard that larynx went into spasm and closed my airway,” he wrote in a post on Gab a few days before Christmas 2021. “Frightening, yes, but relaxing instead of panicking allowed the airway to open in 15 to 20 seconds. Took second dose of ivermectin, along with ibuprofen for fever and my usual vitamin regimen. Rest, fluids, and prayer.”

Mr Watt, a passionate songwriter and musician who loved the outdoors and had retired from an energy company in Ohio, died on Jan 7. He was 64. His wife and two daughters are still struggling to understand what led him to a site like Gab, which his widow, Ms Victoria Stefan Watt, blames for what she called his “senseless death”.

Around the United States, countless Americans are suffering a very particular type of Covid-19 grief – a mixture of anger, sorrow and shame that comes with losing a loved one who has consumed social media falsehoods.

On Tuesday, in what was likely his last appearance in the White House briefing room before he retires from government service at the end of the year, Dr Anthony Fauci, President Joe Biden’s chief medical adviser, pleaded with Americans to speak out against scientific misinformation.

“The people who have correct information, who take science seriously, who don’t have strange, way-out theories about things but who base what they say on evidence and data, need to speak up more,” Dr Fauci said, “because the other side that just keeps putting out misinformation and disinformation seems to be tireless in that effort.”

Fighting misinformation is political

Experts say the spread of health misinformation – particularly on fringe social media platforms like Gab – is likely to be a lasting legacy of the coronavirus pandemic. And there are no easy solutions.

“There has been such an incredible focus on developing vaccines quickly,” said Dr Tara Kirk Sell, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Centre for Health Security, adding: “But from my perspective, there’s a missing piece there – a missing social behavioural piece. You can get a vaccine out to people in 100 days, but they think it’s poison? You’ve still got a big problem.”

In preparation for future pandemics, the White House recently released a new national biodefence strategy that calls for the government to “enhance messaging partnerships” before another biological threat emerges. The goal, said Dr Raj Panjabi, Mr Biden’s top adviser on global health security, is to work with “reputable companies who care about getting the message right”.

But fighting misinformation has become political in itself – and has landed the Biden administration in court, opposite the attorneys-general in Louisiana and Missouri, both Republicans, who have accused it of suppressing free speech on matters like Covid-19 and elections by working with social media giants, including Facebook and Twitter.

Dr Fauci was deposed in that case on Wednesday. On Monday, a federal appeals court, siding with the Justice Department, put on hold a lower court’s order requiring Dr Vivek Murthy, the surgeon general, and two other administration officials to sit for their own depositions.