Misinformation and fake news are a modern day problem driven by the powers of social media. However, as we live in a world experiencing a pandemic, misinformation could put people at risk. Scientists have come together to discuss the public health implications of misinformation 1, 2. These scientists highlighted that reputable information provided by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the US Centers of Disease Control Prevention (CDC) had engagement values in the hundreds of thousands. Compare that to clicks on conspiracy sites and hoax information which had a whopping 52 million engagements. Clearly, there is a problem with the uptake of unverified information.
During the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) epidemic which emerged in the 1980s, the information available to the public was plagued with conspiracy theories, rumours and misinformation. Occasionally you will still hear that “HIV does not exist”, despite much evidence confirming the contrary. Mian & Khan remind us how these false arguments influenced government policy during the South African HIV epidemic in early 2000. Governmental denial of the HIV and the effectiveness of its treatment, resulted in the refusal of medication for pregnant women. This ultimately led to unnecessary mother-to-child virus transmission, costing over 300,000 lives 3, 4.
This is not the only time misinformation has swayed our views during an outbreak, throughout the ebola virus outbreak in 2014, social media influenced the social views of healthcare workers and created additional challenges in the effort to control the epidemic 5,6.
American scientists designed a study to determine how twitter bots and “trolls” contributed to online health content. They found that misinformation disseminated by twitter bots masquerading as legitimate users created false equivalency, which in turn eroded public consensus on vaccination 7. As a consequence, the vaccination programme was stunted. Thus demonstrating how misinformation can have detrimental effects on population health. A concern… I think so.
So, have we learnt from the past?
It appears not. Did you know that the “coronavirus was artificially created in a lab by a rogue government with an agenda” originated from social media accounts and websites, where no evidence for the statement was supplied. Please read our breakdown on the Nature article supporting why the coronavirus was not created in a lab, or… read the article yourself!
We want to give you the skills to call information out, and keep that finger far, far away from the share button, except for ours of course. It is our social responsibility to make sure erroneous and dangerous information is not propagated. Especially when we live in a world where the wrong information is shared more than that which will benefit us. Will you join us in ending this misinformation crisis?
How to avoid it?
In short – you can’t. Unfortunately, misinformation will continue to be an entity that exists for as long a social media does. What you can do is learn how to identify misinformation, question it, and challenge it. This all starts by understanding what good quality information really is.
1. If you’re not sure – don’t share
The unknown drives fear and stress which can impact our decision making. In this unprecedented time, it is easy to click, read and share without considering how accurate the information really is. Fake news is often interesting to read and framed to look credible with a name drop from a ‘reliable’ source or institution. It is likely that by the time you come across the post, it has been shared tens or hundreds of times, lending credence to its faux authenticity. Always consider the source of this material. If there’s a reputable name drop, fact check and search the original website or article for yourself. If you can’t find the source material or you’re not sure, don’t share.
2. Consider the source
Before you believe the words you read, question them. In academia, it is gold standard to reference where you got your information from, this must always be from a credible or peer-reviewed source. To write a sentence without referencing it would imply that; it is common knowledge, you are the first person to say this, or it is your idea. Referencing is a way to acknowledge the work of others in your work, argument or ponderings. It provides integrity to your discussion and crucial evidence to support your point. It is commonplace to reference papers or articles that have been published by a scientific journal. In order for a paper to be published, it must be peer-reviewed by other experts in the field. This process ensures the work is necessary and relevant, robust in design and most importantly, offers reliable data.
The next time you read something, think about who wrote it and ask; what are the author’s credentials and what is the evidence?
3. For the geeks… be cautious of preprint
The way research is published is forever changing. Researchers now have a platform where they can publish their findings without peer review. If you’re into science, you may have come across research yourself on platforms such as BioRxiv and MedRxiv. This is great for researchers, scientists and hobbyists to browse the most recent work, but preprint is a double edged sword. It is important to bear in mind that the article has not yet been assessed for its publication suitability. Remember, the peer review process ensures reliability and prevents poorly conducted research from being published. This is not to say that research available in a preprint journal is not reliable, but the reader should remain cautious when drawing conclusions from the evidence.
4. We are forever learning
We are learning new things every single day. The pursuit of science and research works to prove and disprove our current understanding and so guide our thinking. Whilst this dynamic is exciting for the field, the result may be a surge of ever-changing information. This is especially obvious in a pandemic situation, as governance and policy are rapidly adapting to keep up. Although the growing wealth of knowledge may be vital to how we move forward as a nation, it can be extremely frustrating and stressful for individuals. We understand that it is difficult to filter through what is and isn’t useful, what to read and what to do next.
The internet is a minefield of information, it is important that we provide the people around us with the skills to read information, digest it and make an informed decision on whether it is reliable or not. Like the virus itself, we must stop the spread of misinformation.
The Science Social would like to help you remain aware of what’s current, challenge your sources and give you the opportunity to engage in the conversation.
To guide you in your quest for trustworthy information:
The Conversation provides news and views sourced from the academic and research community. If you want to keep up with what’s going on, this is a great place to be. https://theconversation.com/uk/covid-19
World Health Organisation
The World Health Organisation is perhaps the most trustworthy and up-to-date site. As an organisation responsible for international public health, there are links and features covering all manner of public health issues. The link below will take you directly to a COVID-19 dashboard covering issues and questions as they arise.
NHS (or equivalent healthcare service)
The NHS website provides guidance on symptoms and action to take if you are concerned you may have COVID-19. Always check with your national healthcare provider and follow the recommended advice.
The government website has a comprehensive repository of information relevant to the UK. It details current guidelines and government actions which are, at present, updated daily.
- Mian, A., Khan, S. Coronavirus: the spread of misinformation. BMC Med 18, 89 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12916-020-01556-3
- The Lancet, Emerging understandings of 2019-nCoV, The Lancet, Volume 395, Issue 10221, 2020, Page 311, ISSN 0140-6736, https://doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(20)30186-0. (http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0140673620301860)
- Bateman C. Paying the price for AIDS denialism. S Afr Med J. 2007;97(10):912
- Nlooto M, Naidoo P. Traditional, complementary and alternative medicine use by HIV patients a decade after public sector antiretroviral therapy roll out in South Africa: a cross sectional study. BMC Complement Altern Med. 2016;16:128.
- Chou WS, Oh A, Klein WMP. Addressing Health-Related Misinformation on Social Media. JAMA. 2018;320(23):2417–2418. doi:10.1001/jama.2018.16865
- David A. Broniatowski, Amelia M. Jamison, SiHua Qi, Lulwah AlKulaib, Tao Chen, Adrian Benton, Sandra C. Quinn, and Mark Dredze, 2018: Weaponized Health Communication: Twitter Bots and Russian Trolls Amplify the Vaccine Debate American Journal of Public Health 108, 1378_1384, https://doi.org/10.2105/AJPH.2018.304567
Misinformation: Believe, Share, Avoid? Written by @reebola95 with @thescisocial #nofakenews #notsuredontshareTweet