When looking into the tool box used by the anti science movement, and particularly during Covid-19, one great source for science deniers, is science itself. To be more specific, PubMed, the NIH’s online repository of peer-reviewed biomedical and life sciences literature.
Data from Buzzsumo and Crowdtangle suggests that the most shared and engaged PubMed url’s over the past year (May 2019 — May 2020) were papers weaponized for claims that masks are harmful, Chloroquine is an effective treatment and vaccines are dangerous.
The intention of PubMed is noble — an open source database in order to advance science research — but in practice, in addition to its benefits, PubMed is also adding some noise to the already over flooded public information ecosystem. scientific papers are being cherry-picked and taken out of context to support false allegations, defy fact-checking mechanisms, and push conspiracy theories against health authorities.
The most shared paper from PubMed between May 2019 — May 2020 was a paper from 2015 about the use of cloth masks in comparison to medical masks. The bottom line, which is also emphasized in the abstract of the paper, concluded that “as a precautionary measure, cloth masks should not be recommended for HCWs [Health Care Workers], particularly in high-risk situations” . Nevermind that the research focused on infection of people wearing masks, and not infection by people wearing masks, and that the authors published clarifications in light of COVID-19 and that one of the authors even participated in a video showing how to make a more effective cloth mask . Yet, the paper has been circulating by people advocating against wearing masks , and has been engaged hundreds of thousands of times in 2020.
In May, a popular conspiracy theory spread claiming that Dr. Fauci ignored proof that Chloroquine is an effective treatment for COVID-19. This theory has been debunked after multiple recent studies on COVID-19 patients yielded mixed results. However, this claim is often bolstered by a 2005 scientific paper about chloroquine treatment for SARS trended widely online. The above link to the 2005 paper is the second most engaged PubMed URL on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest in the past year. The paper has also seen engagement from major media platforms: On May 18, Fox News host Laura Ingraham tweeted the PubMed link, insinuating “the NIH & DR Fauci were well aware of this.” But this paper has already been circulating in anti-vaxxers, Qanon and science deniers circles as early as March 2020, gaining traction when Eric Nepute (who gained some national attention for promoting Schweppes as prevention method for Covid-19) posted the link to the paper in mid April. It has been used to prove President Trump’s argument, and to strengthen the conspiratorial narrative against Dr. Anthony Fauci as Prof. Kate Starbird noted lately.
PubMed added the stripe warning on their website that COVID-19 is an evolving issue, but of course many of the posts don’t mind the details. “science proves” and that is enough. The links of course would not be flagged on Facebook or Twitter. The weaponization of PubMed against the science community is perhaps another evidence of continuing effort to politicize science, portraying it as a field where conclusions are based on opinions or values and not facts.