Misinformation in the Age of COVID-19
The coronavirus has devastated the world for more than two years, resulting in millions of fatalities and hundreds of millions of cases. From the very onset, scientists knew that the virus could be consequential. COVID-19 shaped up as a pandemic of historic proportions. It has led to personal grief, overburdened healthcare systems, resulted in fatigue among hospital workers, and left survivors enduring symptoms for months after onset. It has transformed our behavior through introducing mask-wearing and social isolation. The privileged were enabled to work remotely while the less fortunate were forced to undertake furloughs, layoffs, or face perpetual risk of exposure. School closures put students years behind in their academic journeys.
As of writing this, July 18, more than one million people have died in the United States, and nearly 6.4 million people globally. Many of us mourn the sudden death of a friend, family member, or loved one. Furthermore, unanswered questions about the virus created an insidious breeding ground for myths, conspiracy theories, and propaganda. Though life as we knew it came to a halt as our pockets and bags filled with extra masks and hand sanitizer, we also bear a key lesson for the future: misinformation is fatal.
Our world is connected at an unimaginable breadth through social media. The globe is a rich network of people communicating via Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Whatsapp, Snapchat, TikTok, Reddit, Quora, and many more platforms. The SARS-CoV-2 pandemic is the first of its kind during this digital age. Constant media coverage made this crisis the backdrop for a new kind of pervasive outbreak: an “infodemic.” While individuals may not intend on spreading false propaganda, the information they share is not necessarily fact checked or referenced. Misinformation then becomes a powerfully destructive force in this era of global communication, where one false idea can spread instantly to millions of vulnerable eyes and ears.
Several examples have demonstrated the negative impact of misinformation. For instance, questions were raised regarding the possibility of administering disinfectants to treat patients with COVID-19. A CDC survey of over five hundred adults found that 39% of responders engaged in life threatening practices including intentionally ingesting disinfectants to prevent infection. On an even higher magnitude, global studies have found a negative correlation between misinformation and vaccination uptake rates. Anti-vaxx propaganda mobilized at a historical pace across the world, precluding the achievement of herd immunity and continuing to exacerbate health disparities. In addition, the need for rapid research led to the relaxation of typically rigorous evaluations of medical texts. As guidelines loosened, the validity of manuscripts declined as a result of containing misinformation, leading to a lapse in confidence for physicians treating COVID patients worldwide.
From the pandemic, it has become clear that when there is fear, lack of direction, and scarcity, misinformation will fill the void. However, just as humanity develops immunity to the virus, we can also develop immunity to misinformation in the case of another pandemic. In a future crisis of this scope, we must acknowledge the issue of misinformation and its dangerous consequences through education and awareness. We must exercise skepticism, check for credibility, examine evidence, and develop critical mindsets. We must read beyond the headlines and look to experts in our communities. We must hold elected officials accountable for broadcasting misleading theories and push for transparency because while information is power, misinformation is the fatal abuse of it.