As the U.S. continues to set new records for coronavirus cases, the spread of COVID-19 misinformation is also continuing to reach new heights. While death is of course the ultimate price of the COVID-19 pandemic, it isn’t the only cost. Misinformation about COVID-19 is harming individuals and threatening to overwhelm public health messages.
Earlier this year, the World Health Organization announced that the new coronavirus pandemic was accompanied by an ‘infodemic’ of misinformation (WHO 2020). These false narratives about the coronavirus are occurring globally and can spread faster than the virus itself.
Incorrect statements about science, technology, and health are neither new nor unique to the current pandemic. Over the years many health crises were accompanied by a deluge of mis- or disinformation and that has caused serious risk to public health and public action.
One thing that does set COVID-19 apart is that it is a completely new virus that no one has seen or studied. As scientists and organizations learn more about the virus over the months, their viewpoints and recommendations change. Those changes have caused distrust with the general population and has allowed for an overwhelming amount of misinformation to spread even faster.
When it comes to COVID-19, there has been a tsunami of misinformation to the public. Some examples are:
- It’s just the flu
- The efficacy of masks
- That certain styles of masks are better than others
- Young people have nothing to fear
- That the drinking or eating of untested remedies that can keep COVID-19 away/cure you
- Conspiracy theories
- Government control theories
Studies of misinformation
In the US, there have been tons of communications full of misinformation. A study of COVID-19 messaging on social media revealed misinformation from news media, politicians, celebrities and other prominent figures made up about 20 percent of claims but accounted for 69 percent of total social media engagement.
In a large-scale sampling that was reviewed in a University of Oxford study of the spread of social media misinformation:
- False claims, mischaracterizations or misleading messages about the actions or policies of public authorities, including government and international bodies appears 39 percent of the time.
- 59 percent of the misinformation involves various forms of reconfiguration, where existing and often a bit of true information is spun, twisted or reworked as an overall false message.
- 38 percent was completely fabricated.
Social media spreads misinformation at a higher rate
Although social media companies should be commended for the huge increase in their efforts to remove misinformation regarding COVID-19 from their platforms, their efforts are largely combatted by the number of viewers continuing to react to and spread damaging information.
Some of the most viral claims include:
- The coronavirus was created in a secret laboratory
- That drinking bleach or eating garlic cures the infection
- One YouTube video watched by more than 16,000 people promotes chlorine dioxide – a type of bleach – as a cure for COVID-19.
- That new 5G technology caused the sickness
- A Facebook video viewed more than 100,000 times shows a British woman describing herself as a nurse blaming deaths from the virus on 5G networks.
Factcheckers are working hard
The International Fact-checking Network (IFCN), has called COVID–19 ‘the biggest challenge fact-checkers have ever faced.’ There is so much daily coverage of the pandemic and so many responses to that coverage, it’s overwhelming. Platform companies and social networks have had to tighten their community standards and responded in other ways.
One study showed that in March there were an average of 46,000 Twitter posts that linked to COVID-19 misinformation each day. That one month of misinformation had the potential to expose tens of millions of people to conspiracy theories, hoaxes or false statistics.
What to do with social information:
- Do a commonsense test, if it sounds outlandish, it probably is
- Fact check the post with the CDC or the World Health Organization
- Search the information to see if it raises any red flags
- Check the The CoronaVirusFacts/DatosCoronaVirus Alliance Database
- Do not share a post if you haven’t verified the information – be part of the solution
With Jack Frost knocking at the doors of the northern hemisphere, the winter weather will keep more people indoors. That makes it more important for health and scientific information to be able to be heard. Information about proper disinfection techniques and infection hot spots will be important to keep the public safe.
Misinformation can cause a lot of noise. It is up to each individual to help curtail the spread of misinformation so that the public can be forewarned and forearmed with the facts.
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