Fake news pandemic: The rise of healthcare misinformation in the age of COVID-19
Harrison Gaiger explores the Coronavirus myths and mistruths that have flooded social media and the human cost of healthcare misinformation.
In February of this year, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO) warned of a wave of false information that would impede an effective public health response to COVID-19 and create confusion and distrust among people all over the world. He claimed that we were not just fighting an epidemic but also an ‘infodemic’ – an abundance of information, some accurate some not, that would spread faster and more easily than the virus, making it difficult to identify what is true and what is false. It was just a few weeks later that Dr Adhanom Ghebreyesus announced to the world that the COVID-19 outbreak could be characterised as a global pandemic. With almost no country in the world unaffected, and with fear for the future increasing, the wave of misinformation he warned us about was in danger of becoming a tsunami.
Bat soup and bioweapons
As the months went on, the virus raged across the globe, providing the perfect environment for false rumours and fake news to flourish. As COVID-19 spread, so did conspiracy theories about the scale of the pandemic, the origins of the virus, and of possible ways to prevent, diagnose and treat the condition. Some of the more egregious examples of misinformation included claims that 5G phone masts cause coronavirus, that it originated from people eating bat soup in Wuhan, and that it was actually the Chinese government who had manufactured the virus as a biological weapon.
A study by the global human rights and advocacy group Avaaz found that health misinformation spiked exponentially during the height of the pandemic. During their research into the threat of misinformation, they identified a series of networks including over 80 websites which were spreading healthcare-related fake news through Facebook. Amplified via pages, groups, and individual profiles, Avaaz estimates that in April 2020 alone, posts containing factually inaccurate information about coronavirus received over 460 million views. Furthermore, content from these misinformation networks had almost four times as many estimated views on Facebook as equivalent content from leading health institutions, such as the WHO, the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) and the US’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Avaaz concluded that Facebook posed a "major threat" to public health.
The human cost of fake news
The spread of this inaccurate medical information very quickly became deadly. In August, a study published in The American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene reported hundreds of deaths directly linked to conspiracy theories and other misinformation. A team of international scientists led by Bangladesh’s International Centre for Disease Research tracked misinformation surrounding the pandemic during the first three months of the year and identified 2,313 reports of rumours and conspiracy theories in 87 countries including the UK, US, China, Iran, and Russia. They found that the infodemic during this period had resulted in over 5,800 people being hospitalised as a result of following false information on social media.
Many of the victims had followed advice pertaining to be credible medical guidance, such as ingesting huge quantities of vitamins, garlic, and other substances including cow urine as a way of preventing infection of the Coronavirus. These actions all had “potentially serious implications” on their health according to the researchers. The results of the study revealed around 60 people had gone blind having consumed methanol and more than 800 people had died from drinking alcohol-based cleaning products, in the hope of disinfecting their bodies. As a result of their findings, the researchers urged governments and international organisations to do more to stop the spread of misinformation.
Quarantining healthcare misinformation
In response to the infodemic, frontline workers around the world, including physicians and nurses, began working with local communities and organisations to disseminate public health messages and warn about the threat that health misinformation posed to people. At a global level, a team of ‘mythbusters’ at the WHO began working with a wide range of media companies, including Facebook, Google, Twitter and YouTube. to offer advice to the public and counter the spread of misinformation. Facebook, for example, introduced a new policy of removing harmful misinformation related to COVID-19 and installed a banner to direct users to trusted content from authoritative sources. For other types of health misinformation, including posts by anti-vaccination groups, Facebook took the decision not to delete the content but instead add warning labels and limit its spread across the platform.
Despite all these efforts, misleading articles, videos and photographs are slipping through the cracks and the spread of misinformation continues. Facebook, Google and Twitter claim they’re removing misinformation about COVID-19 as fast as they can find it. But having analysed a sample set of over 170 pieces of health misinformation, Avaaz found just 16% of healthcare misinformation identified by Facebook had received a warning label. The other 84% had no label at all and were still being widely circulated.
Pharma’s role in the infodemic
Current strategies to tackle misinformation are falling far short of what is required to effectively protect society. So, what role can pharma play in helping people to navigate the world of fake news and replace medical scepticism with trust in the industry? Education is key. But when one of the leading conspiracy theories circulating the internet claims coronavirus is an invention of the pharmaceutical industry, intent on selling more drugs and vaccines, building trust in communications is going to be difficult. It will require a 360-degree approach and input from a wide range of stakeholders, including healthcare workers, patients, caregivers and families. By analysing the perceived trustworthiness of the industry and identifying the various ‘pain points’ and knowledge gaps, pharmaceutical companies can use these insights to design effective education programmes that inform the public and provide more reliable information.
One such programme is the Healthinote smartphone app recently launched by Cognitant Group, a specialist in immersive healthcare technology. Developed in partnership with Bayer, Pfizer, and UCB as well as NHS England, NHS Improvement and The Health Foundation, the app aims to tackle the spread of misinformation by providing verified medical and healthcare information. The app features a library of more than 1,100 A-Z articles from the NHS and uses innovative technology including augmented and virtual reality to provide immersive content that helps users to better understand symptoms, conditions and treatment options. In addition, it features up-to-date guidance regarding the COVID-19 pandemic to help cut through information from unofficial sources. To increase confidence in the information that is provided to them via the app, all of the content can be prescribed to patients by their physicians at the point of care.
Finding a fake news vaccine
Immunising the public against healthcare misinformation is going to require creative thinking and equally creative solutions and will necessitate much more global cooperation between governments, media organisations and pharmaceutical companies. To properly engage and educate the public, government and industry will need to collaborate more, media organisations will need to be better regulated, and pharmaceutical companies will need to provide much more accessible information. But healthcare misinformation isn’t just someone else’s problem to fix, it is the responsibility of all of us to do our part. Here are ten simple actions we can all take to prevent the spread of misinformation:
- Subscribe to well-known and credible news sources.
- Be more precise when searching for information on Google.
- Before sharing, take the time to check, verify and cite your sources.
- Beware of bias. Are you sharing because it’s true or because you agree with it?
- When in doubt – don’t share, post or publish.
- Be critical when browsing through your social media feeds.
- Look closely to see if content is sponsored by a third party.
- Don’t ignore it. If a friend is sharing misinformation, politely ask them to remove it.
- Report misinformation to the platform administrators.
- Make more noise than the people who share misinformation.
While it may be some time before a vaccine becomes available and we see an end to the coronavirus pandemic, proactive steps in the meantime can help to neutralise the fake news infodemic. By practicing good "information hygiene” we will limit not only our own exposure to the dangers of misinformation, but that of our wider network.
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