When COVID-19 first began to spread around the world last spring, people had a lot of questions. Proper scientific understanding of something like a budding pandemic takes time, and it quickly became apparent that too many felt satisfied to take answers from wherever they could find them, regardless of their validity.

Social media in particular proved to be a hotbed for pandemic misinformation. Graphics containing baseless claims about mask use being harmful and the virus being part of an intentional conspiracy flooded Facebook and Twitter feeds across the country.

Virginia Tech alumnus Michael Bazaco has spent much of the last year refuting such claims on Twitter. After studying foodborne illnesses while working on his master’s in food microbiology in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences’ Department of Food Science and Technology, Bazaco went on to earn his doctorate in epidemiology from the University of Pittsburgh. Now an epidemiologist at the University of Maryland School of Public Health with almost 10,000 Twitter followers, Bazaco has found himself in a unique position to share scientifically validated information and encourage proper fact-checking.

“The best way to combat misinformation is to promote good information and package it into a useful message,” he said. “Promotion of true experts and good work is a big part of that.”

In one tweet from last February, Bazaco explained how to verify the qualifications of someone sharing COVID-19 info by looking the author up on PubMed or Google Scholar.

“Look at who they follow and who retweets their tweets. If it’s an anonymous account, dismiss it immediately,” he tweeted. He then replied to his initial tweet with a list of good virology sources to follow on Twitter.

Dr. Michael Bazaco corrects a Twitter-user's misrepresentation of asymptomatic virus spread in a tweet from December 2020.
Michael Bazaco corrects a Twitter user's misrepresentation of asymptomatic virus spread in a tweet from December 2020.

In another tweet from June, he replied to someone asking about the safety of attending large gatherings outdoors if everyone wore masks to remind them of superspreader events that have occurred outdoors and that wearing masks helps, but social distancing is the most important factor in preventing transmission. “Masks alone aren’t enough if you can’t maintain social distancing the vast majority of the time,” he wrote.

So, why has false information about COVID been so pervasive throughout the pandemic in the first place? Bazaco attributes it to a variety of reasons. Many of the people pushing these ideas probably have political or economic motivations. Others are just doubling down after claiming that the virus wouldn’t be so bad back when it first landed stateside over a year ago. However, one of the most dangerous motivations, he said, is ignorance.

“There has been misinformation spread by people who probably have well-meaning intentions but simply lack the expertise or experience to understand and communicate infectious disease epidemiology, virology, or emergency medicine,” he explained. “In some cases, this can be more harmful, because on the surface they may appear to have the credentials and be believable, but their focus may have been an unrelated field of medicine or science. It’s almost like a Dr. Oz effect, where the brand and the image outweigh the true expertise.”

While Bazaco believes that social media has been instrumental in the spread of false or misleading info related to COVID-19, he also thinks that it can be used for good.

“While Twitter and Facebook aren’t the best venues for processing and communicating science, they are the most far-reaching tools,” he explained. “A lot of fantastic scientists have used social media to share knowledge, have open discussions, and promote public health practices. Imagine 10 years ago, having the ability to tweet or message some of the best scientists in the world on your phone and get a response.”

Follow Michael Bazaco on Twitter @MCBazacoPhD.

—Written by Alex Hood

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