From vaccines that make you magnetic to horse deworming medicine as a cure for COVID, misinformation about health and medicine is on the rise—and spreading rapidly. It’s a phenomenon the World Health Organization has dubbed an “infodemic,” and it’s undermining efforts to control the pandemic in the U.S. and overseas.

A fact sheet distributed by WHO and the Pan American Health Organization says, “Inaccurate and false information has been circulating about all aspects of the disease: how the virus originated, its cause, its treatment, and its mechanism of spread. All this makes the pandemic much more severe, harming more people and jeopardizing the reach and sustainability of the global health system.”

To tackle the infodemic, the Social Science Research Council recently launched the Mercury Project, with backing from some big-name philanthropies. The Rockefeller Foundation provided $7.5 million in seed funding, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation gave $2 million, and Craig Newmark Philanthropies provided an additional $500,000. It’s an impressive line-up of funders, but not a surprising one, given their respective interests. The Rockefeller Foundation has long championed public health and medical research in the U.S. and abroad, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation supports medical research and healthcare equity, and Craig Newmark Philanthropies promotes information access, and accuracy and integrity in journalism.

Since the roll-out of the COVID-19 vaccine, a number of funders, including the Rockefeller Foundation and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, have supported local partners to promote access and overcome vaccine resistance in communities across the country, as IP has reported.

The Mercury Project, named for the Roman god of messages and communication, will fund efforts “to quantify the scope of the problem and its impact on society, as well as identify tools, methods, and interventions that better support people’s health across nations,” according to the press release.

Anna Harvey, the president of the Social Science Research Council (SSRC), points out that this work is critical now—and into the future: “As we prepare for the next pandemic, we need social and behavioral scientists and public health experts to work together to advance the behavioral science of infodemic response,” she wrote in Health Affairs.

Misinformation supercharged

Health misinformation didn’t start with the coronavirus, of course. A 2020 Brookings report describes how misinformation, along with scapegoating and social distancing, were triggered by mass health events as far back as the bubonic plague, and during the spread of syphilis throughout Western Europe in the early 1500s.

But COVID-19 has supercharged the spread of health misinformation—with the help of the internet, an ideal vector. Politics has played a role, too, of course. Vaccine skepticism in the U.S., some of it spread by political leaders, has been fanned by right wing media figures like Fox News host Tucker Carlson. And every new development immediately sparks more misinformation: Ronny Jackson, former White House physician and current U.S. representative, recently claimed that the new omicron variant is a hoax pushed by Democrats to gain political support, calling it “the midterm election variant.” There is also some evidence that Russian sources are spreading vaccine misinformation in the U.S. and other Western countries.

Still, public health experts have been taken aback by the ferocity and virulence of the misinformation the pandemic has unleashed, according to SSRC’s Anna Harvey.

Last year, we thought that by this time this year, everybody would be vaccinated—except those who have medical conditions that prevent them from being vaccinated—and we would be distributing vaccines around the world. But we’re just so far from that goal. ” Harvey said. “It took a while for the realization to dawn that we were up against something that we hadn’t really seen before.”

Vaccine resistance isn’t an entirely new phenomenon, of course, but it’s always existed mostly on the margins. What’s happening now is more widespread and global. What’s worse, public health experts are witnessing the pushback against the COVID vaccine feed into formerly fringe areas of vaccine resistance.

“We’re seeing legislation in some states to roll back requirements for childhood vaccines. These are things we thought were settled public health initiatives,” Harvey said.

Francis Collins, the outgoing director of the National Institutes of Health, made this point in an interview in October: “I think we underestimated the vaccine hesitancy issue… I wish we had somehow seen that coming and tried to come up with some kind of a ‘Myth Buster’ approach to try to block all of the misinformation and disinformation that’s gotten out there, all tangled up with politics, and which is costing lives.”

The “why’”

The Mercury Project is a result of growing concerns by many in the public health community. It was developed in response “to calls from the World Health Organization, the U.S. Office of the Surgeon General, and the Aspen Institute’s Commission on Information Disorder,” according to the press release.

Estelle Willie, director of health policy and communications at the Rockefeller Foundation, has been following the rise in health disinformation for some time. She said there is now a consensus within the public health establishment that more work is required to counter misinformation, which means learning more about its causes and about how to respond.

“Everyone agreed: ‘We need to fund the research,’” Willie said. “We just don’t know enough about how behavior change is impacted by online information. And the little we do know is extremely concerning: Even just a small exposure to misinformation can make people less likely to be vaccinated. There have been a couple of studies, but up until now, there hasn’t been a huge effort to fund this work.” (Anna Harvey provides an overview of some recent research in Health Affairs.)

Willie explained the important role philanthropy can play in combating the infodemic. “Philanthropy is able to take risks that big global institutions may not necessarily be able to take,” she said. “We’re able to move much faster. Specifically in this scenario, during a pandemic where we don’t have all of the answers, philanthropy is in the best position to kickstart this type of research.”

At the same time, Willie said that the effort needs to go beyond philanthropy, and she’s hoping the Mercury Project will be a catalyst for a much larger movement with support from the research and global health communities. Ideally, the issue will become a fully developed, specialized field of study within public health.

“Since we launched the project, we’re seeing these types of conversations come up over and over again,” she said. “People are very excited. But we needed that catalyst, and that’s what philanthropy can do.”

The Mercury Project has issued a call for proposals, and will make awards through May 2022. It will fund projects in the U.S., Africa, Asia and Latin America for up to three years. The project will also create a forum to share ideas, information and best practices.

“What’s unique about the Mercury Project is that we’re bringing together the research community with local immunization programs,” Willie said. “That is going to add that robust measurement and evaluation to these interventions so that we can learn, and help this learning community grow.”

Asked what caused the infodemic, Anna Harvey said that she hopes the Mercury Project will answer that question. “It varies across countries and regions,” she said. “It’s critical to understand what is driving it. We don’t know what is causing it, the extent of it, or where it’s coming from. The why: that’s what this research consortium is designed to figure out.”