by Isabella Garcia
The World Health Organisation (WHO) has described the huge influx of Covid-19 related information as an ‘infodemic’: “an overabundance of information, both online and offline. It includes deliberate attempts to disseminate wrong information to undermine the public health response and advance alternative agendas of groups or individuals. Mis- and disinformation can be harmful to people’s physical and mental health; increase stigmatization; threaten precious health gains; and lead to poor observance of public health measures, thus reducing their effectiveness and endangering countries’ ability to stop the pandemic” (WHO, 2020).
As Covid-19 is a novel virus and the world has not experienced a global pandemic since the early 20th century there is still lots of evidence that is needed to appropriately inform clinical and public health responses; however, due to this paucity of evidence-based information (especially in the early days of the pandemic), there are vast amounts of unverified, false, misleading, and dangerous information that has spread on both online and offline platforms. Past health crises reveal the impact that mis-and disinformation can have on public health responses. For example, during the Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) in 2019, misleading and false information fed into community mistrust, social disturbances, and attacks on health care workers (Islam et al., 2020). Preventative measures like mask-wearing and social distancing rely upon a widespread public willingness to follow them. Similarly, successful vaccination programmes will depend upon simple, clear, and evidence-led messaging on the importance of vaccine uptake for controlling the pandemic. This has led to the WHO creating a ‘mythbusters’ webpage in conjunction with search and social media companies, to counter the spread of false information connected to Covid-19. While these efforts are helpful and necessary, it has become increasingly clear that social media is not solely responsible for the spread of false information; rather traditional media outlets, elected officials, and other prominent public figures must also be held responsible for spreading misleading information regarding the pandemic. Therefore, it is essential to appreciate the complexities of the contemporary communications environment by viewing it as an interconnected web of online and offline sources each with specific historical, political, social, and cultural contexts that shape content as well as who shares and consumes it.
The role of the Internet & Social Media
It is well documented that social media and other online platforms are hubs of mis- and disinformation and conspiracy theories (Su, 2021). Research has found that the majority of stories (around 83 per cent) reinforcing Covid-19 conspiracy theories can be traced to personal blogs, social media posts, and other alternative online sources (Papakyriakopoulos, Serrano & Hegelich, 2020). Additionally, data shows that individuals who solely rely upon social media as a source of news are more likely to believe false information about the pandemic (Su, 2021). Online platforms provide an easy, accessible, and fast way to share, spread, and consume various types of information, thus it is not surprising that misleading and false Covid-19 information has flourished online. Some of this information is harmless, such as eating garlic and ginger will prevent you from catching Covid-19, but other forms of false Covid-19 information have caused harm and damage. For example, 700 people died in Iran from methanol poisoning because it was claimed online that it could ‘cure’ the virus, and in the UK dozens of 5G masts were vandalised as a result of online conspiracies stating that they caused Covid-19 (Colley, Granelli & Althuis, 2020). Additionally, there are several racist conspiracies online that were promoted by political figures like Donald Trump that suggested that Covid-19 is a Chinese bioweapon and/ or escaped from a lab in Wuhan, which in turn led to an increase in racist abuse and attacks against Asian communities globally (Jaisawall, LoSchiavo & Perlman, 2020). Furthermore, from a public health perspective fake and unregulated medical information circulating online is hugely problematic as it can potentially undermine preventative measures and vaccine uptake. Social media companies have attempted to counter false content on their platforms through increased fact-checking, warning-labels, and by removing posts that breach their guidelines, but there is a significant variation from company-to-company. For example, 59 per cent of false posts remain active on Twitter with no direct warning label in contrast to 27 per cent on Youtube and 24 per cent on Facebook (Brennen et al., 2020).
It should be noted that the majority of research examining misinformation, disinformation, and conspiracy theories online tend to focus on measuring the spread of information, rather than measuring the impact said information has on society, thus it often just assumes its effects are significant and generally negative. However, a recent report by Cardiff University School of Journalism, Media and Culture has found that the majority of people in the UK can identify fake news and that there is a widespread rejection of conspiracy theories like the 5G story (Soo, Kyriadidou & Morani, 2020). Widespread public awareness of false information online can be partly attributed to growing scepticism among the general public towards social media as representing a reliable source of news. A poll conducted by Reuters (2018) found only 12 per cent of respondents trust social media news in contrast to 51 per cent who said they trusted traditional news media outlets most of the time. However, despite the small proportion of people using social media as a source of news the majority of research, policy interventions, and public discussion surrounding mis-and disinformation focuses on the role of social media in spreading it. As a result, the dissemination of false and misleading information offline through traditional news outlets and by political actors is routinely overlooked.
The Role of Traditional Media Outlets & Political Actors
A recent report by Brennen at al., (2020) found that the majority of Covid-19 misinformation is not entirely fabricated, rather the majority involves reconfiguration “where existing and often true information is spun, twisted, recontextualised, or re-worked” (p.4). Additionally, it found that social media engagement was higher for reconfigured information as opposed to outright lies spread by conspiracy theorists, trolls, and bots. For instance, 69 per cent of the total social media engagement measured was driven by misinformation posted by political actors, celebrities, and other public figures. This suggests that viral social media content is firstly amplified by traditional media outlets where more prominent actors are platformed. An example of this was how ibuprofen sales in the UK dramatically dropped after reports circulated on social media, traditional media outlets, and by official medical sources suggesting that it exacerbated Covid-19 symptoms. The report concluded that “there is no single root cause behind the spread of misinformation about the coronavirus. Instead, COVID-19 appears to be supplying the opportunity for very different actors with a range of different motivations and goals to produce a variety of types of misinformation about many different topics. In this sense, misinformation about COVID-19 is as diverse as information about it.” (Brennen et al., 2020, p. 8).
Indeed, it is important to recognise that throughout the pandemic political leaders in many countries have made false and misleading claims related to Covid-19 and their respective governments pandemic mitigation efforts. The former US President Donald Trump is an obvious example to use as he spread several false claims concerning Covid-19, such as suggesting that disinfectants and ultraviolet lights could ‘cure’ people of Covid-19 (BBC, 2020). In a similar vein, right wing-news outlets and media personalities have continued to propagate the idea that monthly death-rates are not above average and that hospital admissions are low by cherry-picking data and utilising it out of context to legitimate their ideological viewpoints (Uscinksi et al., 2020, FullFact 2020a).
These are more extreme and obvious examples of misinformation whereas more subtle forms have been spread by political actors who have been accused of failing to communicate information coherently, and for obscuring political accountability for government failings throughout the pandemic (Mctague, 2021, Dunt, 2021, Griffin, 2020). For instance, the UK government has on more than one occasion used misleading statistics regarding the death rate, the number of people who have been tested, track and trace, the virus R rate, and the supply of personal protective equipment for health and care workers (the Conversation, 2020, the Guardian, 2020, FullFact, 2021, FullFact, 2020b). In addition to this, government ministers have often appeared at the coronavirus Downing Street Conferences without any scientific or health experts, which increases the possibility of ministers being able to avoid answering the more expert specific questions posed by journalists regarding scientific data (the Conversation, 2020). A recent report found that the British public has stated being confused regarding the statistics used to represent how the pandemic is being handled, and a large proportion underestimate the UK’s death toll in comparison to other countries (Soo, Kyriadidou & Morani, 2020). Similarly, currently, news reports are circulating reporting that people in France and Germany are refusing to have the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine due to misinformation spread by politicians and the media regarding it (Vock, 2021). However, while this source of misinformation may have had an impact on uptake it should not be viewed as directly causal because in France vaccine hesitancy has always been higher than the rest of the world, thus unfavourable reports regarding the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine could have simply exacerbated a pre-existing public scepticism (Vingnaud, 2021). Once again highlighting the multiple interconnected factors that can contribute towards individual and societal beliefs on a certain issue.
To conclude, the purpose of this discussion has been to examine the role that online and offline communication sources have played in the spread of mis-and disinformation during the Covid-19 pandemic. Through reviewing the most recent literature on this topic it is clear that more emphasis should be placed on examining how traditional news outlets and political figures are increasingly responsible for spreading false, misleading, and conspiratorial messages for a variety of reasons that go beyond the scope of this discussion. Most importantly, it indicates that it would be productive to conceptualise mis-and disinformation as not simply an online phenomenon or something that social media companies must address because the reality is much more complex.
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