Dancer, singer, songwriter, actor, director – Madonna has had quite the career.
But the queen of pop’s latest reinvention came this week in the form of a video posted on Instagram that shared a coronavirus conspiracy theory with her 15 million followers.
Madonna claimed a vaccine existed but was being concealed. “They would rather let fear control the people and let the rich get richer and the poor get poorer,” she said.
Instagram blurred the video, captioned it “false information” and linked users to a page debunking the bogus claim. Later, it deleted the post.
So ended another skirmish between celebrity, truth and the pandemic, an ongoing battle that pits fame against science and public health.
The clip, which the Formula One driver shared with 18.3 million Instagram followers, shows Gates offering reassurance over potential vaccine side effects and debunking false claims that any vaccine will be used to implant microchips in people. The clip is captioned “I remember when I told my first lie.”
After a backlash, Hamilton deleted the post and issued a statement praising Gates and backing a vaccine but expressing concern about “uncertainty” over side effects from the potential coronavirus vaccine, which does not yet exist.
Some celebrities such as John Cusack, Woody Harrelson and Wiz Khalifa have peddled the myth linking linking 5G technology to coronavirus. Others, such as the actor Evangeline Lilly, question the need for social physical distancing (she later apologised).
There is even a conspiracy theory that celebrities are being paid to say they have coronavirus. “Such stupidness,” said Idris Elba, who contracted the disease earlier this year.
Some of those challenged over spreading misinformation delete posts and plead misunderstanding. Others refuse to back down. Either way, say public health experts, messaging about Covid-19 becomes muddied.
“Celebrities have a platform and when they abuse it it’s incredibly irresponsible,” said Paul Offit, co-inventor of the rotavirus vaccine and director of the Vaccine Education Center at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. “They influence people. Science doesn’t win out, the facts don’t win out. Emotion trumps scientific evidence every time.”
Samuel McConkey, an infectious disease expert at RCSI University of Medicine and Health Sciences in Dublin, said many people turned to prominent names on Instagram, Facebook, TikTok and other platforms for information about Covid-19.
“Looking to our singers and actors as sources of information about this disease is daft. It’s like I was to do the singing and acting – it wouldn’t be entertaining. We have to work within our own domains and spheres of competence. Anyone who is turning to Madonna for scientific information has muddled thinking. Maybe we need primary school courses in epistemology.”
Offit and McConkey credited some celebrities, such as actors Salma Hayek and Amanda Peet and boxer Katie Taylor, with using their platforms to echo established medical advice on vaccinations and other effective public health measures.
A study by researchers at the Reuters Institute at Oxford University found most engagement with coronavirus falsehoods came via social media posts by politicians, celebrities and influencers.
“Rather than being completely fabricated, much of the misinformation in our sample involves various forms of reconfiguration where existing and often true information is spun, twisted, recontextualised or reworked,” said the report.
Baybars Örsek, director of the International Fact-Checking Network, a unit of the Poynter Institute, said celebrities should be mindful of their “amplification capacities” around falsehoods.
“Covid-19 has caused hundreds of thousands of deaths around the world and spreading misinformation on cures, vaccination, and causes of the disease hurts the public’s trust,” she said.
Orsek also urged internet companies to be vigilant. “Millions of users are being exposed to such falsehoods in any given day.”