How social media undermined the COVID-19 response

Online platforms have a responsibility to prevent the spread of misinformation.

May 14, 2020, 10:45 AM

The digital age dramatically transformed the way we get information and the increase in news consumption from non-traditional outlets has fueled growing concern about the quality of information users encounter.

A study published Wednesday by British Medical Journal found more than one in four of YouTube's most viewed COVID-19 English videos contain misleading or inaccurate information.

As social media continues to grow as a source of health information, misinformation on COVID-19 is reaching far more people than previous public health crises like swine flu, Zika and Ebola, the study's researchers noted.

What does it mean when any unvetted voice can become a source to a platform of millions?

Rasmus Nielsen, Ph.D, a political communication professor at University of Oxford and director of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, wanted to know these answers in relation to the pandemic. He studied six countries with varying levels of pandemic severity (Argentina, South Korea, Spain, Germany, U.K. and U.S.) to understand more about how people around the world got coronavirus news.

His research revealed that people with low levels of formal education were more likely to rely on social media and messaging applications for information about coronavirus. They were also more likely to get questions wrong on a simple coronavirus quiz.

Among the countries studied, misinformation seemed to be the most pronounced in the U.S. and South Korea. Every country except South Korea and the U.S. answered more than 75% of quiz questions correctly. Study respondents from South Korea, Spain and the U.S. also said individual politicians generated large volumes of misinformation.

In all six countries, people who leaned left trusted news organizations much more than they trusted the government, while those who leaned right trusted the government more than the news.

In every country except Spain and the U.S., a majority rated their national government trustworthy.

With mistrust rampant, people turn to alternative outlets to find facts. But, Nielsen explained, “[not] everyone is always equipped or inclined to assess the credibility or accuracy of any one piece of information."

Rupali Limaye, Ph.D, a social and behavioral scientist at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, studies the public health impacts of social media misinformation.

“Social media is great in a lot of ways because it has allowed people to access information that might not have had access to before. However, on the flip side of that, it's not fact checked,” she said.

People who want to spread false information can "peddle misinformation and peddle cures that are not based in science" on social media, she added.

COVID-19 presented a great public health communication challenge because doctors and scientists were learning about the disease in real time.

“Even for those of us that work in public health, we can say one thing and then the next day it's something else ... it's evolving so quickly that it's hard to discern what is correct and what is not correct,” said Limaye. She explained that people have difficulty living in times of uncertainty, which is rooted in social psychology.

These elements make people more vulnerable to receiving and spreading online misinformation.

“What ends up happening is that people end up sending messages, whether it's inadvertently or on purpose, that contain misinformation. But then people think it's true and spread it to other networks -- it's the same case with COVID and vaccines," Limaye said.

Info that spreads the farthest and fastest to go viral also tends to be more sensational, she noted.

The toll of misinformation moving far and fast is very real. Misinformation about chloroquine and COVID-19 was implicated in a death in March, and misinformation about ingesting cleaning products for COVID-19 was blamed for a spike in cleaning product poisonings in April.

Limaye explained that dissenters often put a spin on true events that makes them false, but the familiarity to the truth makes the information easier to believe. She shared the example of social media dissenters who proclaimed: "Public health and doctors don't know what they're talking about-- they told us to not wear masks, now we are wearing masks!"

Misinformation and false facts muddle the message from pandemic experts, undermining the COVID-19 response.

What can we do?

Facebook, Twitter and YouTube now incorporate fact-checking in their platforms and say they are attempting to flag or remove content that contains obvious misinformation related to the coronavirus.

Nielsen and Limaye both agreed online platforms have a responsibility to help prevent the spread of misinformation and make it easier for users to fact-check information they encounter.

And when it comes to personal responsibility, both recommend fact-checking information yourself.

“There's nothing wrong with politely questioning things that people share in a tactful way," Nielsen said. “A gentle correction can in fact help counter misinformation ... so if you see something, say something would be a sensible approach."

Responding does not have to be confrontational, he pointed out. "Are you sure that's true?" is one way to push back politely, Nielsen suggested.

Limaye said, “If you see something that might be, you know, a little fishy, you should try to fact check it. You should try to see if there are multiple sources that are backing it up.”

Impeding of experts, public fear and widespread mistrust created the perfect storm for social media misinformation to undermine the COVID-19 response at a time when information is our greatest defense.

Nancy A. Anoruo, MD, MPH, is an internal medicine resident physician with a focus on public health at the University of Massachusetts Medical School and a contributor to the ABC News Medical Unit.

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