Misinformation is as contagious as coronavirus

Conspiracies, political attacks, and quackery. A health expert sorts through the Wild West of COVID-19 information.

This is the first social media pandemic.

Spreading around the globe just as rapidly as the virus is misinformation and conspiracy theories. Inaccurate information isn’t just unhelpful — it can lead to panic and fuel racist and nationalistic biases. Fighting misinformation is a crucial aspect of responding to the outbreak.

How crucial? Just ask the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control’s director general, Chikwe Ihekweazu. During a 2017 monkeypox outbreak, rumors and conspiracies chewed up precious time that could have gone toward saving lives. “A lot of my work at the time was focused on responding to the media impact rather than to the outbreak itself,” he said.

Social media companies are trying to stem the tide. But a lot of this comes down to us; what we read and what we share. Freethink spoke with Adrienne Holz Ivory, an associate professor in the communications department at Virginia Tech who focuses on health information, about why this bad info spreads and how you can avoid getting caught up in it.

This email interview has been lightly edited.

Freethink: How do people getting more of their news from social media now impact this pandemic as opposed to past ones?

Adrienne Holz Ivory: A great deal of misinformation about the COVID-19 appears to be getting spread at a quicker rate than with previous pandemics due to increased reliance on social media.

Social distancing is likely exacerbating this trend, as people may especially feel isolated and alone and anxious for ostensible blame and solutions.

Much of the misinformation appears to be causing increased confusion about the source and transmission mechanism of the virus, the severity of the virus, means to slow the spread of the virus, and so called “cures” for the virus.

“Research shows that most people actually do not panic during crisis situations if they are kept well informed.”

Adrienne Holz Ivory

Freethink: Why does misinformation proliferate during times of unrest?

Adrienne Holz Ivory: During times of crisis, people want information as quickly as possible, and social media are adept at fulfilling this need. Misinformation, or unintentionally spread false information, may be spread during a pandemic due to the level of uncertainty that people may feel during times of crisis.

This uncertainty may lead to fear, especially when people are inundated with contradictory information, further fueling the spread of false information. Some of the disinformation, or intentionally false information, may be a result of scams or phishing messages aimed to steal confidential data for malicious purposes or installing malware on computers via promises of a cure or treatment.

Freethink: What is the danger in putting too much stock in stories or social media posts about individuals in the pandemic?

Adrienne Holz Ivory: Putting too much stock in potentially false social media posts can be dangerous for both individual and public health. Stories that incite too much fear may potentially induce panic, though research shows that most people actually do not panic during crisis situations if they are kept well informed.

However, misinformation that minimizes the severity and susceptibility of a pandemic can be particularly dangerous because people may fail to take actions to protect themselves and others recommended by health organizations. If people have inaccurate perceptions of the level of risk due to media misinformation, this may increase disease morbidity and mortality.

Freethink: Where should people turn to for information that can be considered authoritative?

Adrienne Holz Ivory: People should turn to reliable primary sources of medical information from public health officials like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO).

Freethink: The pandemic and the information around it is constantly changing in real-time as events progress. How does this impact what people are learning and the amount of trust we put in information?

Adrienne Holz Ivory: It’s inevitable that information about a novel virus will change as the pandemic progresses. What is more likely to impact the amount of trust that the public places on messaging are the vast inconsistencies and conflicting messages that are being received.

It’s not so much that the information is constantly changing but rather that people are being presented with conflicting information from different sources. In addition, downplaying potential risks of the virus or false reassurance may also create public distrust.

Freethink: It is incredibly easy to spread information that capitalizes on fear. Why are we driven to finding information that confirms our fears, and can people overcome this reaction?

Adrienne Holz Ivory: This may be a matter of confirmation bias, wherein people are more likely to search for and remember information that confirms their existing beliefs and attitudes. This is likely exacerbated by filter bubbles on social media where website algorithms personalize the information that an Internet user receives. Potential ways to combat this may be looking to various information sources, fact-checking, and considering multiple perspectives.

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