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Researchers find the amount of COVID-19 misinformation unsurprising, given the extent of other health misinformation. Suhaimi Abdullah/NurPhoto via Getty Images
  • A new study has compared the amount of inaccurate COVID-19 information online early in the pandemic to the amount of misinformation about other health issues.
  • The authors describe the abundance of COVID-19 misinformation as entirely predictable, based on the inaccuracy of other health information.
  • An expert suggested to Medical News Today that people seeking information are considering more than just the reliability of the source.

Online COVID-19 misinformation has undermined the adoption of behaviors that can prevent infection. A new study took a close look at online messages about COVID-19 in the early days of the pandemic.

The researchers found that there was initially less COVID-19 misinformation on Facebook and Twitter than misinformation about other medical topics.

Questionable health information is nothing new to social media. Unsupported opinions and companies’ claims about the benefits of their health products are common.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, health experts have recommended a series of behaviors designed to keep ourselves and others safe, including hand washing, mask wearing, and social distancing — as well as vaccination, once vaccines became available.

Misinformation has persuaded some to ignore this guidance. And on February 15, 2020, World Health Organization Director General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus described the spreading of misinformation as an “infodemic.”

The new study purports to be the first to compare the amount of COVID-19 misinformation with the amount of other health misinformation. The lead author, Prof. David Broniatowski, explained in a George Washington University press release:

“At the start of the pandemic, governments and organizations around the world started paying attention to the problem of health misinformation online. […] But when you compare it to what was going on before the pandemic, you start to see that health misinformation was already widespread. What changed is that, when COVID-19 hit, governments and social media platforms started paying attention and taking action.”

The study has been published in PLOS ONE.

The researchers analyzed about 325 million Facebook and Twitter posts from March 8 to May 1, 2020, comparing them to health-related posts from the same period in 2019. The team collected a “snapshot” of posts from 3 early months of the pandemic that is about to enter its third year.

But the significance of the team’s insights extends beyond that period, or even the current pandemic, says co-author Prof. Mark Dredze, of Johns Hopkins:

“Misinformation has always been present, even at higher proportions, before COVID-19 started. Many people knew this, which makes the ensuing misinformation spread during COVID-19 entirely predictable. Had we been more proactive in fighting misinformation, we may not have been in an anti-vaccination crisis today.”

Medical News Today asked Dr. Jeffrey Layne Blevins, of the University of Cincinnati’s Journalism and Political Science departments, if he feels that the study documents a situation that has worsened since spring 2020. He replied, “Absolutely yes.”

“The whole ‘hydroxychloroquine as COVID prevention and treatment’ thing seems quaint and ancient at this point,” said Dr. Blevins.

He added: “We’ve already moved on to ivermectin as a treatment, drinking urine, and heaven only knows what else is coming down the pike. While the urine-drinking treatment hasn’t seemed to gain traction, thankfully, the more likely long-term political front line around COVID will be the use of vaccines. The anti-vaxxers seemed pretty entrenched on this one, and it will be interesting to see if they adapt [Food and Drug Administration (FDA)]-approved treatments over ivermectin, hydroxychloroquine, etc., in the future.”

The study found that the COVID-19 posts were 1.13 times more likely to link to credible sources than health-related posts prior to the pandemic. But among the COVID-19 posts that linked to “not credible” sources, these sources were 3.67 times more likely to contain misinformation.

As to the “somewhat optimistic view” that there are plenty of credible sources online, Dr. Blevins noted, “What we have to keep in mind, though, is whether or not the credible sources of information are getting the same level of attention as misinformation.”

He explained, “In today’s world of cultural politics, it seems that a lot of people look to social media not necessarily to find the ‘truth’ about anything, but rather to find information and commentary that supports their already-held views — hence, what social scientists call ‘confirmation bias.’”

Even so, says study co-author Dr. Sandra Crouse Quinn, of the University of Maryland:

“At this point in the pandemic, it is critical for new research to further explore COVID-19 misinformation within the health misinformation ecosystem, [and] most importantly, how we can combat this challenge.”