Sheffield Director for Public Health says fake news is causing “a lot of fear and misunderstanding”

A public health official in Sheffield has expressed serious concerns about the amount of misinformation being spread online.

Greg Fell, Director of Public Health in the city, has been leading Sheffield’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic and has been in the role of Director of Public Health since 2016.

He said: “The people that we are testing are the really sick with underlying health conditions, these are the people that are being admitted to hospital.

“I don’t think a lack of trust in science and misinformation is affecting us clinically but there is a lot of fear and misunderstanding out there.”

Only this week Facebook has been forced to respond to research suggesting that up to 29% of fake news about Covid-19 spreads undetected and unlabelled on their site.

Mr Fell was keen to stress that he doesn’t think the majority of those sharing misinformation are acting maliciously:

“Most, in my view, isn’t deliberate fake news merely stuff borne of either fear or something filling a void when there is one.

“It can come from differential interpretations of complex and conflicting information from various viewpoints and various degrees of expertise.”

Facebook are now working with the World Health Organisation (WHO) to direct users to the WHO Myth Busters page whenever they encounter Covid-19 related content on the platform.

Mr Fell believes that, even if the misinformation doesn’t lead to deaths, the uncertainty created by the spread of misinformation and fake-news is still damaging.

He said: “What we see on TV on the big screen every night is enormous hospital emergency wards and deaths.

“My kids are scared by it but the reality is that most of us will probably experience a mild illness, we might not even notice that we’ve got it.

“That isn’t to say it is trivial when we’re seeing death rates in the order of 1% but there is a lot of fear and misunderstanding.”

As for life after Covid-19, Mr Fell wasn’t hopeful that we’d see an increased trust in the sciences, even if it was responsible for staving off the worst of the pandemic.

He said: “This might not be enough to spark a new wave of trust in science and scientists but I have heard that there is now more interest in epidemiology.

“Kids are looking at how they can become virologists, all of a sudden epidemiology is a sexy thing!”

He said there have been other positives too: “We’re seeing a new wave of community spirit here in Sheffield which is great.”