How to Spot COVID-19 Misinformation

John Whyte, MD; Andrew Ordon, MD


September 22, 2021

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JOHN WHYTE: Welcome, everyone. You're watching "Coronavirus in Context," and I'm Dr. John Whyte, the chief medical officer at WebMD.

The coronavirus vaccine changes your DNA. There's a tracker in the vaccine. It causes infertility. Wearing masks makes you inhale carbon dioxide.

You've heard it all. There is a lot of misinformation out there. So how do we sort out what's fact and what's fiction?

Joining me today to help provide some tips for all of you is my friend Dr. Andrew Ordon. He is the host of "The Doctors." Drew, thanks for joining me again. How are you?

ANDREW ORDON: Always a pleasure, John. I mean, you said it. We have so much misinformation out there. And we had it before the COVID pandemic, but the COVID pandemic, with the disease in itself and the vaccine especially, has just -- it's the perfect storm for more and more misinformation.

JOHN WHYTE: And you know, I want to talk about it from the misinformation perspective, as opposed to what some people call disinformation, when people are intentionally telling falsehoods to harm people. But Drew, something in misinformation that sometimes I think we all forget is when people are misinformed, they don't think they're misinformed, right? They think that --

ANDREW ORDON: They actually buy into it and believe it. But John, back to your point, I mean, how can you deny the science? How can you deny the efficacy, the safety, the track record of vaccines in general and now the COVID-19 vaccine? I mean, they want to ignore it. And you know, John, it's a trend that we saw starting before the pandemic. It's sort of cool to distrust, to question, mainstream medicine that is based on science, that is based on research, fact, experience. And professionals like you and I have dedicated our lives to providing reasonable and sound medical information.

JOHN WHYTE: Well, how do you do that? You have a huge platform of "The Doctors." How do you make sure that you're addressing people's fears, right? People are concerned about side effects or fear of catching COVID. How do you make sure you give them the best information?

And as you and I know, you can give great information. But if you can't get anyone to consume the information, it's not going anywhere. It's not a “build it and you will come.” So you have to entertain people as well. Where is that balance?

ANDREW ORDON: You're exactly right, and emotions are now coming into play. Unfortunately, I get a little angry when I hear some of these things. But as you alluded to, I do have a platform, and we're in the midst of launching season 14.

And I'll tell you, John. There isn't a show that we've done so far that doesn't address the issue of vaccines and misinformation and anti-vaxxers. And all I can do is assure people in a nice way.

I say, look, we get input into our website at "The Doctors." People say, “Oh, well, you have an agenda. You love vaccines because you're getting a kickback because you're in big pharma's back pocket” -- I mean, that kind of crazy stuff.

Well, guess what? I get to answer it, and I simply put it as, “Guess what? You know what my agenda is? The best for you, the best for your family, the best for your community, and the best for your country.” That is what I am preaching. The vaccine is safe. It's based on science, and all we can do is give people sound information. And I would like to think that slowly, we're chipping away.

JOHN WHYTE: Let's talk about some tips that people can use to spot misinformation, whether it's about the vaccine or different treatments or supplements that impact one's health. And something I always tell people is you have to be skeptical. Do you agree with that?

ANDREW ORDON: Very, very much so. I mean, if it sounds too voodoo medicine or hocus pocus, you got to go ask yourself: “Really?” I mean, these things, tracking devices and changes your genetic makeup and things like that, I mean, those are so out there. As I said before, there's something in the air now that it's cool to just think so outside of the box. Whether you call it conspiracy theory or anti-mainstream medicine based on science, it's just out there.

JOHN WHYTE: So we tell them to be skeptical. I've also been telling people to check the source, meaning I even go to the CDC -- you know, MMWR report -- or I went myself to look at the FDA submission. Everyone doesn't have to do that. But given the need for a transparency, I think it's a good idea to dig in a little deeper when you're trying to find out the facts. Do you agree with that, or do you think that's too much work?

ANDREW ORDON: A hundred percent, John. I mean, you've got to do your vetting, your due diligence. I know for some laypeople, it's difficult to get through scientific articles, but with some of this disinformation: What is the source? Where is this coming from?

JOHN WHYTE: I was going to say that. Let's check the source.

ANDREW ORDON: Yeah. Yeah, check the source. Who is saying this? Is this a reputable person at a reputable institution? Is this a legitimate, reliable scientific study?

JOHN WHYTE: The other thing we want to remind people is you want to pause before you share it. You don't want to be part of that misinformation. So before you press that Share button, take a little bit of time and do what we've been talking about in terms of checking the source, looking at the date, checking your own biases.

That's important to stopping the spread of misinformation.

We were talking to Dr. Phil the other day, and he brought up this concept of confirmatory biases, where when we're trying to look at information, we have to check our own biases. You and I as physicians probably have been subject to that confirmatory bias, where we only look at the information in terms of the diagnosis that we think it is, and we ignore other facts.

Would you agree? It's the same thing when we're talking about COVID. You're only looking at people like you on your Facebook page or only following on Twitter that have the same mindset as you. You're only looking at things that are going to confirm your own biases. How do we break that, Drew?

ANDREW ORDON: This bias was preexisting when it came to vaccines. As you know, we've had this debate with vaccines before COVID. And then when this COVID-19, the vaccine came through quickly.

But you know, it's a different time, that we have the science. We have the technology to fast-track a vaccine that we didn't have back in the day when we first came out with polio vaccines and smallpox, things like that. So you can't compare apples and oranges.

But I think that this bias was preexisting for a lot of people. And they just wanted to jump on the bandwagon. This was an excuse for them to say, “Yeah, vaccines are bad, and this is just another example. In fact, this may be worse than any we've seen yet.” All you can do is quote the science, the efficacy, the safety, and why it's so important that we all need to get the vaccine.

JOHN WHYTE: And in fairness, we don't want to spend our entire day researching the coronavirus and other --


JOHN WHYTE: -- effects. So I have to ask you: You have your new season coming up. I'm sure you're not just going to cover COVID. Well, what do you have in store this season?

ANDREW ORDON: As you know, you're all about medical information. There's something new every day. So we're basing a lot of what we're talking about on real-life storylines, different illnesses, and we're going the full gamut.

There's so many mental health issues, psychological issues going on now, whether it be adults, kids, et cetera. So that's going to be a recurrent theme for us. But we're basically going to cover all sorts of medical topics, all specialties.

JOHN WHYTE: All right. Well, Dr. Andrew Ordon, host of "The Doctors," it is great to see you again. Thank you for all that you're doing to inform the public, to keep them safe, as well, as I point out, to help them look good, too. Because that's important as well for our psyche. So thank you.

ANDREW ORDON: It sure is, John, and you keep up the good work too. I'm a big fan of yours.

This interview originally appeared on WebMD on September 22, 2021

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