Misinformation spread in the Covid-19 pandemic

Since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, there has been caution around misinformation. As I have discussed in my past posts, misinformation spread happens on the individual, group, and societal levels. As people search for information about the virus they are met with fake news and misinformation and may not be able to make an important distinction.

The situation becomes even more complicated as prominent politicians like Donald Trump constantly put out misinformation about the pandemic. Many refer to this era where existing beliefs or prejudices seem to matter more than objective facts and evidence as to the post-truth era. Misinformation seems to be the mainstream. The World Health Organization has also called this overabundance of information the “infodemic”. It is hard for people to find reliable sources and trustworthy guidance.

Social media site algorithms that tend to prioritize sensational content heighten the spread of misinformation about the pandemic. Most websites and platforms have only taken minor steps to combat this. Websites like Facebook and Twitter have started flagging content and banning malicious accounts. WhatsApp partnered with the World Health Organization to send its users Covid-19 facts and updates. However, we still see misinformation persist.

A 2020 article, “Effects of misinformation on COVID-19 individual responses and recommendations for resilience of disastrous consequences of misinformation” highlights how Covid-19 misinformation has manifested itself in many different forms. These range from people consuming cleaning products, conspiracy theories that claim the virus was developed in a lab or claims that praying will cure you of the infection. In Bangladesh, many believed that eating Centella asiatica, or Asiatic penny-wort would cure Covid-19. Subsequently, the price of the penny-wort raised five times. The study also reinforces the role that social media has had in the spread of virus misinformation. Even though social media platforms have contributed to the spread of misinformation, they are just as capable of creating awareness amongst their users.

The World Health Organization identifies these recent trends as the infodemic where there is “a large increase in the volume of information associated with a specific topic,” where “growth can occur exponentially in a short period of time due to a specific incident, such as the current pandemic.” As we have more and more ways to exchange information in the form of increased internet access and new social media platforms, the amount of misinformation grows at the same rate. The WHO’s article on the infodemic also notes that because misinformation can be absorbed so quickly due to its emotional nature, it has a high likelihood of changing someone’s behavior and taking risks. These risks could include not following public health guidelines like mask wearing or refusal to get vaccinated. The same stressful emotional motivations that I discussed in my post on individual motivations affect decision making regarding pandemic information which can lead to incorrect information being distributed.

In my next post, I will be discussing proposed solutions to the misinformation pandemic that we are living in. Especially in the pandemic where misinformation can take a toll on our lives, it will take a multi level systems approach to combat its spread.