Apr 5, 2021
Battling the misinformation pandemic
Health consumers have been deluged with an onslaught of medical misinformation on social media during the pandemic, physicians and researchers say, and following some simple guidelines can help avoid dangerous myths as vaccination becomes increasingly available.
The truth is one of our most important weapons against the pandemic, and there are many reliable ways to find it.
- said Dr. Mark Siedner, infectious disease doctor at Massachusetts General Hospital.
Here are some tips for getting answers to your COVID-19 questions:
- Ask your primary care doctor: “You wouldn’t typically seek advice from an accountant on how to fix a car. For the same reason, you should get medical information from medical professionals,” said Siedner.
- Seek out a friend or family member who is also a doctor: If you’re more comfortable asking someone you know your COVID-related questions, see if there’s a medical professional in your social circle who has time to have a distanced or virtual sit-down.
- Go to official state and federal websites: The CDC, World Health Organization, and local state health departments are always good sources for correct health information, Siedner says. In fact, WHO has a “mythbusters” page dedicated entirely to debunking common myths perpetuated on social media.
- Stick to mainstream news: Common sources of inaccurate news are blogs and fringe political websites, says Vish Viswanath, professor of health communication for Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health. Ongoing studies at the Chan School are finding that people who get their COVID-19 information from mainstream news sources are the most well-informed. “The one thing we're finding is the saving grace of COVID-19 despite all the tragedy is journalism,” Viswanath says. “The mainstream press are the ones tracking the numbers,” he says. “I would definitely avoid blogs and fringe websites for the simple reason that you don't know what is motivating people to cook stuff up.”
- Go straight to the data: Though scientific literature can be dense and jargony, it may be worth a try to look up studies in peer-reviewed journals, said Dr. Daniel Kuritzkes, chief of infectious disease at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. If that proves too heavy a lift, there are other trustworthy websites that disseminate the same information in a more digestible way, including the Infectious Disease Society, the American Medical Association and the Centers for Disease Control, which publishes weekly reports on important research.
- Remember that even smart people are not necessarily experts: “In the age of social media, everyone is an expert,” Siedner said. “Sometimes instead of it coming from a true trusted source, it's someone you know and love. A major danger is assuming that because it's from someone you trust that it is, in fact, a trusted source.”
- Report misleading and irresponsible posts: Although Viswanath says the onus should be on social media platforms to take down bad information, anyone can have a part in that. The WHO has easy-to-follow instructions on how to report false posts on sites including Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and YouTube.
A glut of misleading posts
Some viral COVID posts on social media come from everyday people, while others come from well-known figures. Rarely, though, do they come from medical experts.
“This is really a huge problem. It’s not unique to COVID, but it's particularly dangerous in regards to COVID,” Kuritzkes said. “Posts on Facebook and Twitter can essentially just be word of mouth, and very quickly they can pop up and start trending suddenly.”
Meanwhile, members of the public struggle to keep up with constantly evolving data and information about COVID-19. Because the coronavirus was completely new, medical experts are continuing to learn about it.
As a result, people may turn to those they trust on social platforms – even if they’re not the best sources.
According to a recent survey analysis by Washington State University, people who rely on social media as their primary news source are more likely to believe misinformation about COVID-19.
And the misinformation isn’t just coming from suspicious accounts.
A study from December, in which researchers canvassed over 53 million tweets and more than 37 million Facebook posts, found that most of the harmful and inaccurate posts were made by high-profile, verified accounts.
“You have to go beyond just turning toward the sources you trust,” Kuritzkes said. “Because even people you trust may not have the right information about this in particular.”
Hunger for information
Misinformation has plagued the medical community for decades, and social media has only exacerbated an already dangerous phenomenon. Kuritzkes recalls falling victim himself years ago when he was interviewed for a documentary – which, unbeknownst to him, argued that HIV did not cause AIDS. His input was taken out of context and he unwittingly became part of a harmful and inaccurate film.
“In the HIV world, we've dealt with this for many years with AIDS denialism,’ Kuritzkes said. “Misinformation is extremely harmful and for many people can be challenging to spot.”
And while inaccurate information has long existed online and elsewhere, the problem becomes magnified during times of crisis, says Viswanath.
Because people are so eager to find answers – and because the pandemic has become so politicized – people with underlying agendas can more easily rope the public into believing misinformation, he says.
“People are hungry for information, they have information gaps, and they have to somehow fill them. We are all desperate for some kind of explanation,” Viswanath says. “Messages like these have always been there, but crises heighten the attention to and salience of these messages.
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