• Fake stories relating to planetary health, including those relating to climate change, saw a spike during the pandemic.
  • Planetary health is a movement focused on analyzing and addressing the impacts of human disruptions to Earth's natural systems on human health and all life on Earth.
  • The expertise of the healthcare industry is essential to the fight against the spread of fake news relating to human and planetary health, experts argue.

An innovative study into 'planetary health' and related conversations online has revealed fresh insight into the spread of misinformation and disinformation relating to climate change and how the pandemic contributed to the 'infodemic'.

Planetary health is focused on analyzing and addressing the impacts of human disruptions to Earth's natural systems on human health and all life on Earth.

By analyzing social media posts on Twitter and Reddit between December 2018 and August 2021 the study, produced by leading digital insights consultancy Creation Healthcare in partnership with pharmaceutical company GSK, sheds light on the widespread dissemination of fake stories online relating to planetary health.

A pattern of fake news

It shows how the period was characterized by spikes in users either knowingly (disinformation) or unwittingly (misinformation) spreading false information and how these were predominantly focused on a select group of climate change related topics.

The largest spike was seen in the early stages of the pandemic and related to the false claim that higher global temperatures were a net positive in the war against COVID-19. The spike was made up of over 1,000 original posts across social media in early 2020 to make the false claim. One tweet received nearly 10,000 likes and over 1,100 retweets. It claimed the COVID-19 virus could not survive above 77 degrees Fahrenheit (25 Celsius) and that, as a result, "Only global warming can save us".

The second largest spike was driven by 955 original posts featuring claims by scientists denying climate change exists. Many referenced Dr Judith Curry, a climatologist, and her claim that climate change is either "unscientific" or a "hoax".

A further 1102 original posts were recorded over the period falsely claiming that the Earth is cooling. These reached a monthly high of 156 posts in May 2020.

Preceding the pandemic, key topics relating to planetary health misinformation included polar bears 'thriving' (contrary to their conservation status of 'vulnerable'). Multiple spikes were observed over the period with the most prominent featuring 142 original posts in early 2019.

Meanwhile, criticism of the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports, and claims that climate change is not caused by carbon emissions, instead being caused by the sun, regularly appeared throughout the period of study.

The findings were compiled by specialist digital insights consultancy, Creation Healthcare, using their database, CREATION Pinpoint®. The tool allows their researchers to run search queries across multiple languages to find posts on social media that include key terms.

Uniquely, the specialist database allows its teams of analysts to isolate and run queries against the social media profiles of more than 3 million healthcare professionals' social media profiles and some 2 billion healthcare-related posts to reveal healthcare insights.

Tackling the 'infodemic'

Despite efforts to combat misinformation online, including a guide issued by the World Health Organization (WHO) at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic to help identify misleading information online, the 'infodemic' persists.

The challenge is compounded by evidence suggesting that fake news stories relating to the climate have been increasing for a sustained period, and that the reach when each outbreak of fake news does occur is also growing.

This is supported by the study's research into planetary health conversation online and internet users. The study shows the growth in the number of internet users globally and the number of authors and posts in online planetary health conversations. Despite seeing a reduction in the level of online conversation surrounding planetary health over the course of the pandemic, more recent figures point to a recovery and a return to the pre-pandemic trajectory.

Fears surrounding the growing 'infodemic' have prompted experts, such as Daniel Ghinn, Founder and CEO of Creation Healthcare whose team led on the research with GSK, to urge the healthcare industry to seize the opportunity to play a greater role in combating the spread of online misinformation:

"Even before the recent COVID-19 pandemic, we could see the impact misinformation can have, especially in the healthcare space. Now, as health and climate change become ever more interlinked by the growing discussion on planetary health, the healthcare industry has the chance to take the lead in combating the spread of misinformation which continues to obstruct meaningful progress.

"The industry's expertise puts it in a prime position to lead on the production and curation of evidence-led information to tackle the growth of misinformation. Creation's partnership with GSK has resulted in the first steps being taken, but now we need more corporations and industry leaders to support this movement. With the backing of their resources, there could be a fundamental positive shift in people's understanding of human and planetary health, which is what we are all striving for.

His comments come off the back of previous advocacy work his team has spearheaded to encourage industry and experts to step up their efforts in the field of health misinformation.

From 2014 to 2016, his team worked with the World Health Organization (WHO) during the Ebola crisis in a range of areas, including misinformation. Their work involved the development of communications toolkits for use in health emergencies, while their capacity to monitor in real-time the conversations of healthcare professionals surrounding Ebola provided insights from the front lines of healthcare and health communications.

He has written in the past about how healthcare professionals are often the best placed to campaign for the change needed, citing advocacy work that resulted in platforms such as Twitter introducing a new feature that would allow users in specific jurisdictions to report tweets that 'seem misleading'.

Similarly, the pandemic-related surge in health misinformation also served as a catalyst for doctors and public health experts to embrace innovative tools to help address it by reaching new audiences. The adoption of TikTok by healthcare experts, with its next-generation short-form video format and algorithm, was an example of this.

At an international level too, positive work has been seen. In addition to the WHO's work surrounding Ebola, its stark warning of an "infodemic", and the commitment by 132 United Nations members to tackle fake news about the virus are regarded as key milestones.

WhatsApp and Facebook have also partnered with the UN to combat the issue. The partnership saw the WHO launch a COVID-19 Health Alert service, which allows WhatsApp users to join a conversation to engage with the service and receive resources, including messages, audio files and links to videos.

Despite this positive work, experts warn that public health bodies cannot defend against misinformation alone. They must make use of the existing expertise to coordinate the necessary global response, both in a public health context and a broader planetary health one. This will require healthcare experts amplifying truthful information as part of a network of influential voices.