COVID 19: Misinformation and How to Stop Its Spread
December 5, 2021
You may have come across claims online of COVID-19 being a government-run hoax, vaccines being able to change your DNA, masks being ineffective at preventing the spread of disease, or anti-parasitic medicine meant for horses being an effective miracle cure for humans. The excessive spread of misinformation, what WHO refers to as part of an “infodemic” has spread rapidly alongside the COVID-19 pandemic, and has greatly exacerbated its consequences (WHO, 2021).
With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, information relating to COVID-19 has dominated headlines and spread rapidly across various media. Unfortunately, with this massive information exchange comes misconceptions, misinformation, and disinformation about COVID-19 and its related topics. Misinformation refers to false information that is unintentionally spread, due to confusion about current evidence, news, etc. or otherwise (CDC, 2021). Misinformation about COVID-19 vaccines, public health measures such as mask mandates and social distancing, and the efficacy of unapproved treatments, in particular, have become dangerous to public health and has stymied efforts to prevent the spread and deadly consequences of the pandemic. Along with discouraging people from getting vaccines and dissuading people from complying with public health mandates, leading to more deaths, misinformation about public health measures has encouraged harassment against healthcare workers, restaurant staff, service professionals, etc (HHS, 2021).
Why the uptick in misinformation? Even before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, people have long been exposed to a rapidly changing information environment, as seen by the 24 hr news cycle and the spread of and the increase of activity within social media platforms. With a wealth of information easily accessible yet limited by one’s interests and how social media and search engine algorithms operate, misinformation spreads easier, faster, and on a much larger scale than ever before. Health recommendations are frequently updated as we learn more about COVID-19, but without a reliable and clear translator that can communicate new information to the wider general public, many people are left confused about what sources to check, who to trust, what to believe, and how to act (HHS, 2021). Add in the alternative, and frequently misleading, wealth of information online that often try to compete for your attention through sensationalism, and you have a good portion of the population left confused and susceptible to various types of misinformation.
News media and social media are large contributors to the spread of misinformation - content reach is most successful when it is designed to exploit all those loopholes in your brain - with emotional appeals, alignment to cognitive biases, dramatic headlines, etc. Social media platforms incentivize sharing content with others and users can engage content by liking, commenting, etc.. Information, whether accurate or not, can reach wider audiences faster than ever before, and requires no scrutiny from the average person deeper than glancing at images and headlines. Online media site algorithms are built to continually prioritize upwards-trending content and to promote content based on your prior enjoyment and those shared by people in your circle, creating information bubbles effective at cementing misinformation (HHS, 2021). One study found that most articles about COVID-19 prevention on social media platforms were accurate, but that inaccurate content was more likely to be shared than accurate content (Obiala et al, 2021).
Misinformation flourishes in environments isolated from credible sources of information, and with “significant societal division, animosity, and distrust” (HHS, 2021). A way to prevent the spread of misinformation is to have easily accessible and reliable sources of information consistently available and widely known. Media, government, officials, and the public should work together to promote the dissemination and proliferation of factual information and intervene against content and sources spreading dangerous misinformation (JHBSPH, n.d.). Individual ways to help combat misinformation include learning to identity health misinformation by checking the validity of sources you come across before sharing information, engaging with friends and family on the topic of health misinformation, patiently correcting misconceptions when they come up during conversations, providing reassurance and accurate information instead of lecturing, and addressing misinformation in your community through volunteer work and activism (Strazewski, 2021; HHS, 2021; CDC, 2021). Youth can get involved in fighting against misinformation on a broader level by working to convince government officials to create more accessible sources of information, promote trust in science, provide the public with more tools to identify misinformation, expand research on understanding health misinformation, and pushing for policy changes on social media platforms, etc. (Roozenbeek 2020; HHS, 2021).
Consider volunteering your time to help combat health misinformation - since the COVID-19 pandemic, the international community has found a growing increase in youth activity and participation (UN, n.d.). Youth volunteers are working on aiding vulnerable groups, helping with education programs, supporting healthcare workers, etc. Organizations such as UNICEF, Youth Against Misinformation, the GW Health Communication Volunteer Corps, and STRONGER are examples of organizations recruiting youth volunteers to proactively fight health misinformation and promote vaccinations. Check out the United States Youth Forum’s Community Resource Column for advice on how to get more involved and inspire political change.
Read more about how to address the infodemic and fight COVID-19 misinformation through UNICEF’s Vaccine Misinformation Management Field Guide here.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). (2021). How to address COVID-19 vaccine misinformation. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/covid-19/health-departments/addressing-vaccine-misinformation.html.
Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. (n.d.). Meeting Covid-19 Misinformation and Disinformation Dead-on. https://publichealth.jhu.edu/meeting-covid-19-misinformation-and-disinformation-head-on
Obiała, J., Obiała, K., Mańczak, M., Owoc, J., & Olszewski, R. (2021). COVID-19
misinformation: Accuracy of articles about coronavirus prevention mostly shared on social media. Health policy and technology, 10(1), 182–186. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.hlpt.2020.10.007