Misinformation: The Other Virus

By Josette Barrans

What you can do:

While there are many relevant healthcare issues associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, one of the lesser-discussed threats involves the dissemination of information. In many ways, the spread of misinformation and disinformation since the beginning of 2020 has mirrored the spread of the virus itself, with the effects growing over time and claims evolving as they are passed on to more and more people. The World Health Organization has coined the term “infodemic” to describe the phenomenon, which they define as an “overabundance of information – some accurate and some not – that occurs during an epidemic.”[1] This influx of information can have devastating effects as it can cause mass confusion and lead to citizens mistrusting their governments and public health responses.

You’ve likely heard many times that COVID-19 is no more deadly than the common flu. Or that wearing masks causes your body’s oxygen levels to drop. Or that indoor dining is safe as long as the tables are six feet apart. When hearing these statements on their own, they sound logical and factual. But, the issue with so many COVID myths is that they rely on kernels of truth or easy-to-believe premises that give them credibility in the eyes of the public. Due to confirmation bias, lies that align with the knowledge people already have can easily become widely-accepted truths, with no one questioning their accuracy or seeking out the scientific evidence to back them up. But, with an unprecedented event like a pandemic, the factual information will likely be new and scary, meaning it will be harder for people to accept it as true.

A major factor contributing to the widespread confusion of average citizens is the constantly changing information regarding the pandemic and public health recommendations. For example, there was constantly evolving information about how long COVID could last on surfaces and if it could be spread through them, as well as the ability of asymptomatic people to spread the virus. The CDC recommended quarantine when exposed even changed from 2 weeks to 7 or 10 days. Once again, it is easier to accept a static set of facts when faced with an unknown threat, causing many people to distrust top public health organizations and officials when they update their recommendations and facts. In the United States, the issue of misinformation was only further exacerbated by a president who spread myths himself and directly undermined top scientists and their advice. Last summer, Donald Trump suggested that Americans could inject themselves with disinfectant as a potential coronavirus cure [2]. He consistently criticized state governors for closing restaurants and bars, implying that this was an unnecessary precaution and it was safe for people to continue going to them. When the country’s leader disagrees with other top officials, it leads to more confusion and distrust.

The last time there was a pandemic of this magnitude, the internet, much less social media, did not exist. The immense scale of reach of social media and the fact that regular users can produce and share information means that myths can easily spread and gain influence.

In fact, most disinformation is created and spread by normal people on social media [3]. According to a Twitter analysis during the 2016 election, 80% of the misinformation came from 0.1% of users. Misinformation is false or inaccurate information of any kind and can include honest mistakes, while disinformation is the intentional construction of lies. Disinformation is often designed to be provocative and cause feelings of anger or fear. It is easy to digest so that people can form quick opinions without thinking deeper, and this format lends itself easily to short social media posts and eye-catching headlines [4]. In an era where polarization is already a huge issue on social media, the politicization of the pandemic had made it a contentious topic for many users. Additionally, while many social media platforms have attempted to fight misinformation by fact-checking COVID and politics-related claims, there is no possible way to suppress all of the false information that exists on the internet. There are many different platforms for the dissemination of information, and if people feel that a platform like Facebook is suppressing their speech by fact-checking claims, they will move to more sympathetic platforms such as the conservative-leaning Parler. Furthermore, corrections and fact-checks don’t typically reach as wide of an audience as the original claim, rendering them ineffective in many cases [3]. If the fact check does not align with someone’s existing beliefs, it may be ignored and considered propaganda.

When informed by misinformation, people may act dangerously. As a result of conspiracies, huge swaths of Americans refuse to wear masks in public, hold large super-spreader gatherings, continue non-essential travel, and don’t follow quarantine protocols. Thus, the virus cannot be contained, health systems are overwhelmed, more people die, and life cannot go back to normal for a very long time. Now, the infodemic is affecting attempts to end the pandemic through vaccination. Myths about the safety of the vaccine have flooded social media and news sources, causing many people to assert that they will refuse to get it. This threatens the population as a whole, as herd immunity is the only way to truly overcome the pandemic, meaning a certain percentage of the population must be vaccinated and protected. While there are many unknowns about the vaccine, including the exact degree of its effectiveness and longevity, many people have based their skepticism on wild theories that are completely unsupported by scientific evidence. A widespread conspiracy theory asserted that vaccines would include microchips allowing the government to track individuals [3]. Some people think the vaccine will put them more at risk of dying than contracting COVID, or that getting the vaccine is unnecessary if you’ve already had the virus. Once again, the spread of these rumors through social media is dangerous to public health.

Infodemics can be detrimental for mental health as well. When people are constantly inundated with information about death and danger it can lead to severe anxiety. These effects are only made worse when false, provocative information is constantly in their newsfeed and people struggle to separate the truth from the clickbait. When people are stuck inside all day and desperate to make sense of their situation, it is easy to get stuck in a cycle of “doomscrolling”, where they spend all day looking at social media feeds full of alarming information.

Thus, it is necessary to employ evidence-based interventions that bring understandable, localized, and science-based information to people and initiate positive health-seeking behavior. It is best to rely on plain, informative sources that existed long before the pandemic began, such as the CDC and medical professionals. The most relevant advice should stay relatively consistent, such as wearing a mask, washing your hands often, and staying home as much as possible [4]. Stepping away from the news cycle can be good for your mental health and should not put you in danger of missing any essential information. The government or advocacy organizations should put more resources into improving media literacy with educational campaigns. As individuals, we can proactively share accurate information in our feeds rather than trying to fight with those who spread misinformation. We can promote and spread resources from reputable organizations like the WHO that debunk common COVID myths. As this infodemic is largely constructed by individuals on social media, we can do our part to fight it through the same avenues.

Works Cited:

[1] https://www.who.int/teams/risk-communication/infodemic-management

[2] https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-52407177

[3] https://knowablemagazine.org/article/society/2021/how-online-misinformation-spreads

[4] https://www.nytimes.com/2021/02/12/well/covid-vaccine-misinformation.html