Trust Us - We Are the (Covid-19 Misinformation) Experts: A critical scoping review of expert meanings of ‘misinformation’ in the Covid era

Chaufan, Claudia, Hemsing, Natalie, Heredia, Camila and McDonald, Jennifer (2024) Trust Us - We Are the (Covid-19 Misinformation) Experts: A critical scoping review of expert meanings of ‘misinformation’ in the Covid era. (Submitted)

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Background: Since the WHO declared Covid-19 a pandemic, prominent social actors and institutions have warned about the threat of misinformation, i.e., false or misleading information, calling on the public to join in a global crusade against it. However, neither the premises underlying expert claims nor the standards that experts use to identify truth from falsehood have been appraised.

Objectives: We conducted a critical scoping review of the medical and social scientific literature, examining what this literature means by misinformation.

Methods: We followed the framework of Arksey and O’Malley for scoping reviews informed by the critical perspective of the “what is the problem represented to be” approach to policy analysis. Medical sources were identified from PubMed and from three medical journals - the British Medical Journal, The Lancet, and the New England Journal of Medicine – and social science sources were identified from the journal Social Science & Medicine and from within refereed publications of self-identified and socially recognized “misinformation experts”. We used specified combinations of search terms (e.g., “covid-19”; “misinformation”) adapted to each source and identified a total of 68 articles for analysis. Data were charted independently by two researchers. The protocol was registered in Open Science Framework.

Findings: Across the data, we found that verifiability relied largely on the claims of socially recognized epistemic authorities to the exclusion of independent evidentiary standards. Further, “epistemic authority” did not depend on subject matter expertise, but rather on a new type of “expertise” - in misinformation itself. Finally, policy solutions to the alleged threat that misinformation poses to democracy and human rights called for, paradoxically, suppressing information unverified, and debate unmanaged, by experts, in the name of protecting democracy and rights. Notably, we identified no pockets of resistance to these dominant meanings and uses.

Conclusions: We assess the implications of our findings for democratic public policy, and for fundamental rights and freedoms. The study is part of a larger project examining geopolitics, medicalization, and social control in the Covid era.

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