The COVID-19 crisis saw infographics, blog posts, videos, and “expert commentaries” sprouting on social media, but many of these media posts had incomplete or outright false information.
Medical dis/misinformation context
The World Health Organization (WHO) defines medical dis/misinformation or infodemic as the spread of information that is false or misleading during a disease outbreak. Because of misinformation, people were influenced to take questionable medicines or refuse vaccines. During the COVID-19 pandemic, in 2021, medical dis/misinformation became so severe that the US Office of the Surgeon General declared it a “significant public health challenge.” People shared false information (intentionally or unintentionally) with friends and families, and many YouTube channels promoted risky “cures” without any medical evidence.
In 2020, the rise of public health misinformation led to a significant debate on free speech. Some Americans argued that it’s necessary to clearly define who decides whether medical information is misleading to prevent censorship and suppression of ideas. Others argued that it is essential to impose fines on sources and individuals who outrightly spread misinformation by not providing science-backed content in matters of life and death. A 2022 research study revealed that Facebook’s algorithm erratically suggested content to people that might have led them to believe that they should not get vaccines. Some researchers believe encouraging people to get reliable sources “offline,” such as their doctors or community health centers, can slow down misinformation.
In 2021, the nonprofit Social Science Research Council launched The Mercury Project to investigate the long-term effects of the infodemic on health, economics, and social outcomes associated with COVID-19. The Mercury Project is projected to complete its research by 2024 and intends to share research results with governments to help develop future policies against infodemics.
Implications for medical dis/misinformation
Wider implications for medical dis/misinformation may include:
- Governments imposing fines on social media platforms and organizations willfully spreading misinformation.
- More vulnerable communities being targeted by rogue nation states and activist groups with medical dis/misinformation.
- The use of artificial intelligence systems to spread (as well as counteract) dis/misinformation on social media.
- Infodemics becoming more common as more people use social media as their primary source of news and information.
- Health organizations using targeted information campaigns to focus on groups that are the most vulnerable to disinformation, such as the elderly and children.
Questions to comment on
- Where did you get your information during the pandemic?
- How do you ensure that the medical information you receive is truthful?
- How else can governments and healthcare institutions prevent medical dis/misinformation?