How does COVID-19 misinformation compare to other health topics?

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Researchers find the amount of misinformation about COVID-19 unsurprising, given the extent of other health misinformation. Suhaimi Abdullah/NurPhoto via Getty Images
  • A new study has compared the amount of inaccurate information about COVID-19 online at the start of the pandemic to the amount of misinformation about other health issues.
  • The authors describe the abundance of misinformation about COVID-19 as entirely predictable, based on the inaccuracy of other health information.
  • One expert suggested Medical News Today that people seeking information consider more than just the reliability of the source.

Online misinformation about COVID-19 has undermined the adoption of behaviors that can prevent infection. A new study took a close look at online messaging about COVID-19 early in the pandemic.

The researchers found that there was initially less misinformation about COVID-19 on Facebook and Twitter than on other medical topics.

Questionable health information is nothing new on social media. Unsubstantiated opinions and claims by companies about the benefits of their health products are common.

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, health experts have recommended a series of behaviors designed to keep us and others safe, including hand washing, mask wearing and social distancing – as well as vaccination, once vaccines have become available.

Misinformation has persuaded some to ignore this advice. And on February 15, 2020, the Director General of the World Health Organization, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, described the spread of misinformation as an “infodemic”.

The new study claims to be the first to compare the amount of misinformation about COVID-19 with the amount of other health misinformation. Lead author Professor David Broniatowski explained in a press release from George Washington University:

“At the start of the pandemic, governments and organizations around the world began to pay attention to the problem of health misinformation online. […] But when you compare it to what was happening before the pandemic, you start to see that health misinformation was already prevalent. What changed is that when COVID-19 hit, governments and social media platforms started paying attention and taking action.

The study was published in PLOS ONE.

Researchers analyzed approximately 325 million Facebook and Twitter posts from March 8 to May 1, 2020, comparing them to health-related posts from the same period in 2019. The team collected a “snapshot” of posts from the top 3 month of the pandemic which is about to enter its third year.

But the importance of the team’s knowledge extends beyond that time, or even the current pandemic, says co-author Professor Mark Dredze of Johns Hopkins:

“Misinformation has always been present, even in higher proportions, before the onset of COVID-19. Many people knew this, making the ensuing spread of misinformation during COVID-19 entirely predictable. If we had been more proactive in fighting misinformation, we might not have been in an anti-vaccination crisis today. »

Medical News Today asked Dr. Jeffrey Layne Blevins, of the University of Cincinnati’s journalism and political science departments, if he thinks the study documents a situation that has worsened since the spring of 2020. He replied, “Absolutely Yes”.

“The whole ‘hydroxychloroquine as COVID prevention and treatment’ thing seems quaint and ancient at this point,” Dr. Blevins said.

He added: “We have already switched to ivermectin as a treatment, drinking urine, and God only knows what else is in store for us. While treating urine consumption hasn’t seemed to be gaining traction, fortunately the most likely long-term political frontline around COVID will be the use of vaccines. The anti-vaxxers seemed pretty ingrained on this one, and it’ll be interesting to see if they adapt [Food and Drug Administration (FDA)]- approved treatments on ivermectin, hydroxychloroquine, etc., in the future.

The study found that COVID-19 messages were 1.13 times more likely to be linked to credible sources than health-related messages before the pandemic. But among COVID-19 messages linked to “uncredible” sources, those sources were 3.67 times more likely to contain misinformation.

Regarding the “somewhat optimistic view” that there are many credible sources online, Dr Blevins noted: “What we need to bear in mind, however, is whether the sources of information credible or not receive the same level of attention as disinformation.”

He explained: “In today’s world of cultural politics, it seems like a lot of people are turning to social media not necessarily to find the ‘truth’ about anything, but rather to find information and commentary that support their already shared opinions – hence, what social scientists call “confirmation bias”.

Even so, says study co-author Dr. Sandra Crouse Quinn of the University of Maryland:

“At this point in the pandemic, it is critical that new research further explores COVID-19 misinformation within the health misinformation ecosystem, [and] more importantly, how we can meet this challenge.

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