As I was reading an article on the misinformation crisis this past week, that’s when it hit me. Not only are we living through a pandemic, but simultaneously, an infodemic! Why had I never thought of this word before? Why should we be aware of this as a problem, and what can we all do to help? In this post I will explore the concept of an infodemic and why it’s important for us to all seek out and share better information during uncertain times.
According to an article from MIT Technology Review entitled “The Coronavirus is the First True Social Media ‘Infodemic,” the author writes:
On February 2, the World Health Organization dubbed the new coronavirus “a massive ‘infodemic,'” referring to “an overabundance of information—some accurate and some not—that makes it hard for people to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance when they need it.” It’s a distinction that sets the coronavirus apart from previous viral outbreaks. While SARS, MERS, and Zika all caused global panic, fears around the coronavirus have been especially amplified by social media. It has allowed disinformation to spread and flourish at unprecedented speeds, creating an environment of heightened uncertainty that has fueled anxiety and racism in person and online.
For the purposes of this blog post I will focus on two objectives. 1) What’s happening right now in the misinformation/disinformation landscape as it relates to Covid-19 and 2) what you can do to become a better consumer and disseminator of information.
Misinformation and Disinformation Surrounding Covid-19
According to an article from Canada’s National Observer entitled “The truth about coronavirus is scary, but the global war on truth is even scarier,” we are facing a thorny problem. Not only is there poor or inaccurate information being rapidly shared across platforms, but we simultaneously have an issue of low trust in our institutions, creating an environment for rumors, false information, and inaccurate data to proliferate. According to the 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer, none of the four societal institutions that the study measures—government, business, NGOs and media—is currently trusted. But there are steps that can be taken to mitigate.
To begin with, let’s take a look at what’s happening on Twitter. CoMuNe (a Italian-based research arm devoted to theoretical and applied research on complex systems that can be modeled by multilayer networks) recently analyzed 109 million global tweets about Covid-19. Only 59% were posted by humans. Approximately 29% of tweets were based on unreliable news. You can check out their dashboard here. In analyzing the infodemic risk of countries based on native reliability, bot pollution, and bot exposure, the United States was actually ranked #35 with a high infodemic risk.
A peer-reviewed journal article from various professors at the American University of Beirut also recently analyzed activity on Twitter regarding Covid-19. The main takeaway? “Medical misinformation and unverifiable content pertaining to the global COVID-19 epidemic are being propagated at an alarming rate on social media.”
Similarly, in another journal article entitled “Misinformation making a disease outbreak worse: outcomes compared for influenza, monkeypox, and norovirus,” the UK-based authors point out how health misinformation can exacerbate infectious disease outbreaks. They also explore options for combating the problem. During the 2014-16 Ebola outbreak in West Africa, for example, health officials cited widespread rumors and false beliefs as a major contributor to the spread of disease.
Now that we’ve established that this is a problem, let’s take a look at some of the bad info getting circulated across social media in general. For starters, Buzzfeed is keeping a running list of hoaxes here.
Would you believe that there’s actually a YouTube video with nearly half a million views that falsely advises that inhaling hot air from a hair dryer can cure the coronavirus? Public service announcement: inhaling hot air will not thwart Covid-19. Similarly, you may have heard about people taking advantage of consumers like Alex Jones, who was recently ordered to shut down sales of his coronavirus-killing toothpaste by the the New York Attorney General.
Sadly, you may have also heard about the 27 individuals who died in Iran this week from alcohol poisoning to prevent coronavirus. From the ABC News article, “rumors and unscientific treatments on how to fight the virus have spread on social media. Among them was drinking alcohol.”
In another example, since we’ve all seen the empty grocery store pictures being shared, on February 28, 2020 a video depicting a grocery store being overrun in Amsterdam went viral. With over 4 million views and 10,000 comments on TikTok, it turned out that the video wasn’t related to Covid-19 at all, and was actually filmed back in 2011. Learn more about how this video was debunked from the team manager at the Investigations Lab within the Human Rights Center at UC Berkeley.
Adding to the confusion, of course, you have unchecked conspiracy theories running rampant. From the Vanity Fair article entitled “Coronavirus is Creating a Fake-News Nightmarescape,” the author writes: “This time around, the president is proclaiming at his rallies that coronavirus is a ‘hoax’ constructed by the Democrats. Conspiracy theorists on YouTube say it’s a false flag … and QAnon theorists on Reddit are regurgitating the insanity that it’s all part of another deep state plot to overthrow the government. Other false stories have deduced that the Defense Department created the virus to target China.” Conversely, I’ve also seen videos that the Chinese created the virus to target the U.S., and that China’s 5G rollout is really the true cause behind Covid-19, among others.
Aside from the misinformation, there’s also plenty of disinformation to go around. In an article from The Guardian entitled “Coronavirus: US says Russia behind disinformation campaign,” it was reported that thousands of Russian-linked social media accounts have launched a coordinated effort to spread misinformation and alarm about coronavirus. According to author: “Experts said the coronavirus disinformation campaign has parallels with previous conspiracy theories traced to Moscow, including a KGB disinformation campaign in the 1980s that convinced many around the world that US scientists created the HIV virus that causes Aids.”
Compounding the issue, you have a discerning millennial generation that is sometimes slow to accept what they hear as truth. See this Wall Street Journal article, “A Generational War Is Brewing Over Coronavirus -Scientists say lack of alarm among young people could hinder the fight against the virus and endanger elders.” At the same time we simultaneously have a boomer generation that doesn’t always question the information they receive or share. Vice published an article acknowledging this misinformation problem in a piece entitled “How to Stop Your Boomer Parents From Spreading Fake Coronavirus News.” The article points out the dichotomy:
It is well-established that older people are more vulnerable to falling for hoax messages and fake news on social media, as a lot of them tend to view information sent to them as being true by default — especially if it is sent by someone they know. Younger people are more critical of the information they get online, and they should share these critical skills, and calmly explain to their older friends and family how best to spot fake information, and how to avoid spreading it.
So, what can be done to get a handle on this? A few days ago, The New York Times reported on the misinformation phenomenon in their article “Surge of Misinformation Stumps Facebook and Twitter. Secret labs. Magic Cures. Government plots. Despite efforts by social media companies to stop it, false information about the coronavirus is proliferating around the world.” According to the article, Facebook, Google and Twitter are actively working to remove misinformation about the coronavirus as fast as they can find it, while simultaneously working with the WHO and other government organizations to ensure people are receiving accurate information.
On the macro level, if nothing else, Covid-19 has moved tech companies to begin pulling out all of the stops when it comes to fighting against bad information on the web. “There’s a difference between what we’re seeing in recent weeks with the health crisis as opposed to what we see generally in the political realm.” From the Consumer Reports article “Fight Against Coronavirus Misinformation Shows What Big Tech Can Do When It Really Tries,” the author writes: “The tech platforms’ weapons in the fight fall into three main categories: promoting good information, demoting bad information, and keeping misinformation from appearing in the first place.
Bottom line? We all need to work together to become better information consumers and spreaders.
How to Seek Out and Share Better Information
Whenever we are faced with a crisis, what we all need is access to timely and factual information in order to make the best decisions. Unfortunately, it is largely on us as individuals to not only hone our critical thinking skills, but to develop the ability to sift through the noise in order to find real answers.
As the executive director for the National Association for Media Literacy (NAMLE) Michelle Lipkin noted in a recent podcast (episode 27 on The Woodshed), “our mental reality is our physical reality.” In other words, the images and pictures we’re seeing on the news and through social media are actually informing our lived experience. For this reason, it’s important to sometimes take a step back and think critically about what we’re seeing and hearing before becoming too emotinally invested in a particular idea.
Whenever we come into contact with new information that catches our attention or emotion on the web, it’s important not to take it at face value. NAMLE reminds us to always “Access, Analyze, Evaluate, Create and Act” (using all forms of communication) by asking the following questions:
Mike Caulfield, digital literacy expert at Washington State University asks us to remember the SIFT acronym, which is to “Stop. Investigate the Source. Find Better Coverage. Trace Claims, Quotes and Media to the Original Content.”
German-based online verification trainer Eoghan Sweeney asks that we consider these questions when evaluating media:
Above all, it’s important to remember to stay vigilant and take the time to search out official sources of information or experts for the best data. In the case of Covid-19, I’m personally paying attention to the World Health Organization, the CDC, and am also using curated Twitter lists, as well as podcasts, to stay on top of what the experts are saying. Most podcasts are one step ahead of the mainstream media, and allow for deep dives into exploring complex issues. Just check out these recent ones:
- “Joe Rogan Experience #1439 – Michael Osterholm” via Joe Rogan dated 3/10/20. Osterholm is an internationally recognized expert in infectious disease epidemiology.
- “Early Thoughts on a Pandemic: A Conversation with Amesh Adalja” via Sam Harris dated 3/11/2020. Adalja is an infectious disease specialist at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security.
- “Peter Hotez, M.D., Ph.D.: COVID-19: transmissibility, vaccines, risk reduction, and treatment” via Peter Attia, MD, dated 3/14/2020. Hotez is the Dean for the National School of Tropical Medicine Baylor College of Medicine.
Additionally, as it relates to various aspects of misinformation and disinformation, The Lawfare podcast has a great “Arbiters of Truth” series worth checking out that covers everything from disinformation and influence campaigns to social media advertising and of course, Covid-19.
At the end of the day, I think every one of us has been guilty at one point or another of sharing unintended false or poor information. But as a society, we must at least try to do better. Especially as it relates to our health. It all begins with taking personal ownership of your actions on the web, and committing to taking the time to stop, research and think before posting. Ultimately it is up to all of us to keep learning.