This summer, The Agenda is revisiting interviews from TVO’s archive that have continued relevance today.
Something that couldn’t be more relevant in this age of rampant misinformation around COVID-19 and vaccines is this 2015 interview with Timothy Caulfield, a professor at the University of Alberta and author of Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything? When Celebrity Culture and Science Clash.
TVO.org caught up with Caulfield recently to get his views on how well — or how poorly — celebrities have been doing at informing their fans about COVID-19.
TVO.org: I guess we'll start with Gwyneth Paltrow, since she was in the title of your book. She faced criticism for suggesting that she’d recovered from COVID-19 in part by following a keto and plant-based diet. I'm just wondering if you have any reaction to her latest health controversy.
Timothy Caulfield: Yeah, Gwyneth Paltrow never ceases to disappoint, right? I did find her comments about long COVID very frustrating. And it was also interesting to see that the National Health Service actually kind of reprimanded her for her comments and asked the public to ignore her advice, which I love. I’d like to see regulators and health leaders do more of that.
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She said that she had long COVID. And if that's true, I hope she gets better. I don't wish that on anyone. But she used that statement and her platform in order to sell misinformation. And she pushed supplements and, I think, essential oils, and all of these things — for profit! She had this blog where she announced her long COVID, and then she has all these products she's trying to sell. It shouldn't be forgotten that, a lot of times, celebrities are pushing this misinformation for a particular purpose. And Gwyneth is doing it to build her brand and to make money.
TVO.org: As you noted, the National Health Service did push back on Gwyneth Paltrow. Are you seeing celebrities getting challenged on their misinformation more during the pandemic than in more normal times, since the stakes are so high? Or has nothing really changed there?
Caulfield: I think we are seeing misinformation being challenged more. And I'm hopeful that that's going to be one of the legacies of the pandemic — that there's this growing recognition of the harm that misinformation does and that we're going to see more of a regulatory response. But I think that there's also no doubt that prominent individuals have played a huge role in the spreading of misinformation during the pandemic, from Woody Harrelson pushing 5G misinformation to all of the noise that emanated from Donald Trump around COVID. In fact, there was a study that came out that found that a significant portion, I think 37.9 per cent, of all the misinformation about the pandemic had some connection to Donald Trump, which is really remarkable.
If we follow our favorite celebrities, and we share the misinformation that they post, even if we don't necessarily think that the celebrity is an expert on this topic, these celebrities become the access that we have to the misinformation. So, yeah, celebrities have played a huge role in this space. And they continue to do so.
TVO.org: There have been a number of celebrities — Oprah Winfrey, Steve Martin, Mariah Carey, and Neil Young, just to name a few — who have publicly acknowledged they got vaccinated against COVID-19 and have encouraged others to get their shots. How helpful do you think that kind of celebrity advocacy has been in this moment?
Caulfield: I think it's a good thing. It's hard to measure exactly how helpful it's been. But my sense is that it is helpful. There was an interesting study that came out in February this year that found Tom Hanks’s announcement that he had COVID helped to normalize the idea of COVID. We don't have good data right now on the impact that celebrity endorsement has had on vaccine uptake. But one of the constructive roles that celebrity culture can play is normalization.
The other interesting thing is that silence means something, too. When you see, for example, sports stars not willing to talk about their vaccination status, the implication here is either they didn't get vaccinated or that they're putting other priorities above getting vaccinated.
TVO.org: I was very surprised that basketball superstar LeBron James has been coy about whether he's had the vaccine or not.
Caulfield: There have been other athletes, too, that have been coy about their vaccine status, and sometimes they try to tie it to this idea of privacy. Vaccines have become so politicized that vaccinations become a story of ideology. I think that that might cause some celebrities to pause in how they talk about vaccines, because they don't want to alienate a sector of their audience. That’s really frustrating, because that's a win for the anti-vax community and a win for the strategies that they are utilizing.
TVO.org: In the more conservative parts of America, where many people refuse to get vaccinated, there still have been many celebrities that appeal to those states …
Caulfield: Go Dolly!
TVO.org: Dolly Parton, country-music star Eric Church, NASCAR driver Denny Hamlin, have been public about getting vaccinated. Do we have any sense of why those efforts have maybe not had an impact in those parts of the country?
Caulfield: Well, we don’t know that they haven’t had an impact, right? Because, could it be worse? But how amazing is Dolly Parton, first of all. I think that those kinds of voices are really important. And I think they can have an influence, because they're speaking to the exact community that is hesitant right now. And that's exactly what we need. We need individuals from those communities speaking to their community.
TVO.org: So, on one hand, you've got lots of big-name celebrities who have posted Instagram photos when vaccinated, have worn masks, all that stuff. And, on the other hand, you have Donald Trump, Tucker Carlson of Fox News, and other celebrities spreading COVID-19 misinformation. I know this is hard to measure, but do we have any sense of which side is having more of an influence?
Caulfield: Good-news/bad-news story here. Let’s start with the good news, because I actually think this is often overlooked: because the deniers’ voices are so loud, and because they suck up so much oxygen in the room, we shouldn't forget that the behaviour change has been pretty remarkable. If you just think about masks, you hear about the anti-mask marches and the anti-mask rhetoric. But in both the United States and Canada, the fairly quick uptake of masks was remarkable. Research tells us consistently that behaviour change is really tough and often takes a very long time. But wearing masks was normalized really quickly.
That's the good-news story. The bad-news story is that we’re left with this incredibly polarized discourse around vaccines. What we're left with now is, depending on how you measure it, 20 to 30 per cent of individuals who have hesitancy. And, increasingly, that hesitancy is tied to this ideological polarization, which has been driven by pop culture and by right-wing celebrity commentators.
This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.