COVID-19 Infodemic: What are the dangers and how can it be addressed?

Author: Victoria Lam

Editor: Nadia Hall

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Infodemic is a portmanteau of the words “information” and “epidemic”. According to Merriam-Webster, “infodemic” is defined as the “rapid and far-reaching spread of both accurate and inaccurate information about something, such as a disease. As facts, rumors, and fears mix and disperse, it becomes difficult to learn essential information about an issue” (“Words We’re Watching,” n.d.). This overwhelming amount of information is an issue because it can lead to misinformation, rumors, confusion, panic, and even conspiracy theories. With the rapid spread of COVID-19, there has been a resurgence in usage of the word “infodemic”.

In the journal article “The Fake News Sociology of COVID-19 Pandemic Fear: Dangerously Inaccurate Beliefs, Emotional Contagion, and Conspiracy Ideation,” Bratu analyzes survey data from The Economist, Gallup, GlobalWebIndex, Knight Foundation, Ofcom, Pew Research Center, Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, University of Canberra, and YouGov to find the primary sources of misinformation regarding COVID-19 (2020). In the Ofcom survey, many participants reported seeing false claims for treatment or prevention of COVID-19, including drinking lemon water and inhaling steam . Despite this information being illogical or easy to disprove with a quick internet search, participants still reported believing it. For example , 67% of individuals believed inhaling steam was a successful treatment or prevention for COVID-19. In a Gallup poll, most individuals answered that they think the Trump administration, social media, websites and apps are the main sources of misinformation. In the Pew Research Center survey, 63% of respondents felt that false information made United States citizens confused about basic facts regarding COVID-19 (Bratu, 2020). In the article’s discussion, Bratu stresses the importance of mainstream media providing accurate information.

In the journal article “Coronavirus Goes Viral: Quantifying the COVID-19 Misinformation Epidemic on Twitter,” researchers looked at 673 tweets from February 27, 2020, to investigate misinformation about COVID-19 on Twitter. Tweets were sourced from public health, personal, news outlet, and government/business accounts. These tweets were then fact-checked against verified sources. The researchers found that 153, or 24.8%, of the sampled tweets had misinformation (Ramez et al., 2020). Out of 364 tweets from personal accounts, 123, or 33.8%, contained misinformation. Some tweets’ information could not be verified. Out of the four categories of twitter accounts, public health accounts had the lowest rate of unverifiable information. In this study, some of the characteristics that were associated with false information were personal accounts, unverified accounts, and accounts with a higher number of followers. A higher number of retweets or likes was not correlated with false information. This study highlights the prevalence of misinformation on Twitter.

On social media, it is important that people do their own research and do not immediately trust everything they read, especially if the account is not a public health account . Trusted sources for information on COVID-19 include the World Health Organization (WHO), Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and local public health departments (Katella, 2020). These organizations all have social media accounts, and people should look to them for current information. However, it is important to note that even these public health accounts could potentially have misinformation. The aforementioned Twitter misinformation study found that nine out of 73 , or 12.3% of tweets by public health accounts included misinformation (Ramez et al., 2020). Exposure to reliable sources may keep individuals away from inaccurate information, while exposure to rumors may keep individuals from turning to trusted sources (Bratu, 2020). For the sake of those who rely on mainstream media for news and updates, news outlets have the responsibility of providing factual information.

While the two research studies above give a current picture of misinformation, the research is still limited. It will take some time to gather more information on misinformation and COVID-19 (Katella, 2020). Since the pandemic is still ongoing, numbers may change. Researchers in February of 2020 found misinformation in 24.8% of sampled tweets on Twitter, but this number could have increased or decreased in the following months (Ramez et al., 2020). This number could also be different depending on the social media platform.

Misinformation is dangerous because it leads to anxiety, panic, stigma, and discrimination. For example, in March of 2020, there was a rumor that COVID-19 was caused by bat soup (Nunez, 2020). However, as of June 2, 2020, the World Health Organization still doesn’t know the origin of the virus (World Health Organization, 2020). This rumor led to a rise in discrimination against Asians across the world. Rumors and conspiracy theories can also lead to denial and resistance to health precautions. Individuals may refuse to social distance or wear a mask. As a result, these individuals can contribute to the spread of the disease (Roy, 2020). Individuals may also find themselves reading information on COVID-19 despite the news being bad or causing distress. This is known as “doomsurfing” (“Doomsurfing and Doomscrolling Meaning,” , n.d.). Furthermore, the media tends to sensationalize news which can evoke unnecessary panic. For those whose mental health is negatively affected by doom surfing, the World Health Organization recommends minimizing exposure to the news, and only reading information from trusted sources, as well as staying alert but not excessively monitoring the news for updates. People who have mental health illnesses such as anxiety disorders may be at greater risk of stress caused by infodemics (Katella, 2020).

Currently, the World Health Organization is taking steps to actively fight the infodemic. They launched the Information Network for Epidemics (EPI-WIN), which aims to provide accurate, easy-to-understand information regarding public health events and outbreaks (Zarocostas, 2020). Their website is easy to navigate and is available in different languages, including French, Spanish, and Chinese. The website is easy to understand, with graphics and limited jargon. This makes information more accessible to individuals. Currently, the website has information regarding COVID-19, including proper handwashing procedures, mythbusters, and answers to common questions. One example of a mythbuster is that ingesting bleach will not protect against COVID-19 (World Health Organization, 2022 ). It is important that people know claims like these are false, or else people can put themselves in danger. The World Health Organization is also working with social media websites so that when an individual searches for “Coronavirus”, “COVID-19”, or a similar term, they are shown a trustworthy source such as the WHO or the CDC (Katella, 2020). These steps are important so that individuals are given reliable information and the public can stay informed.

In addition to taking these steps, the World Health Organization, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and local public health departments should continue to provide accurate, up-to-date information to the public using social media platforms and news media. As more data about COVID-19 becomes available, the public health information will need to change as well. So, it is important that both organizations regularly update their advice so individuals are aware and the public can keep themselves updated. Fighting misinformation and information overload is a joint effort.


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