The spread of Coronavirus misinformation
We all see and feel a global increase in the spread of misinformation, which has affected the scientific community and the general public in all areas. The disconnection between the scientific consensus and the public, on issues such as vaccine safety or climate change, has been around for many years.
As society became increasingly divided in today’s political climate, this worsened progressively, which created an optimal environment for opposition groups to gain ground and distribute false theories and information. The effects of misinformation have a major impact on the coronavirus (COVID-19) public health crisis.
Many scientific organizations have recently issued statements of solidarity, both to combat COVID-19 and to promote scientific evidence, as well as to join forces in the fight against disinformation. In the last two months, posts from the World Health Organization (WHO) have had far fewer views and hits than various sites promoting conspiracy theories – another argument that underscores the popularity of unverified sources of information.
If we look back a little, we notice that misinformation was high in the early years of the HIV epidemic, a period when the shock of conspiracy theories, rumors and misinformation was felt for several years, the effects being visible in some regions even now. For example, many people continue to argue that HIV does not exist and that its therapies are toxic to human health. The influence of these false arguments is so contagious that it can seep into government policy, in which case the impact has the potential to be fatal. Here is an example: the denial of HIV by the South African government Mbeki in the early 2000s and the rejection of evidence regarding the effectiveness of HIV medication. For this reason, thousands of mothers did not have access to the right therapies. Instead, the government has promoted the use of herbal remedies, including garlic, beet and lemon juice for the treatment of AIDS.
It is important to learn from the past, and the media plays an important role in this regard. It seems that, in an effort to attract the most public attention, media organizations are creating dramatic headlines, meant to cause panic. While health professionals are still learning about the virus, the media has already begun to speculate about the health impact that the virus can have and always prefers to face the worst effects of the virus. These things do nothing but feed the panic among the population.
As COVID-19 becomes a full-blown public health crisis, many theories about the origin of the virus have been circulated on the Internet, all with a common theme, that the virus was artificially created in a laboratory, by a rogue government, with a specific plan. Misinformation comes from social media accounts and sites without any scientific authority. These posts have garnered over 20 million views, and theories continue to gain traction and be distributed on the Internet, despite scientists from several countries analyzing the COVID-19 genome and coming to the clear conclusion that the virus originates in nature, more precisely from an animal source. If strong and clear statements are not circulated to eliminate such speculation, then the impact on the population could be devastating.
Furthermore, important information on how to reduce transmission and exposure to the virus has been affected by sources without credibility. For example, a popular myth that is circulating today is that home remedies can cure the virus or prevent it. Vitamin C administration and garlic intake are touted as miracle remedies, despite the lack of evidence. Some tips are harmless, like the ones mentioned above, but some have the potential to be very dangerous. A product that has gained great visibility on social media involves mixing the solution of sodium chlorite with citric acid, thus generating a solution of chlorine dioxide and promising antimicrobial, antiviral and antibacterial actions. The US Food and Drug Administration has warned that this chemical compound could endanger our lives because of liver failure.
Spreading false information carries the risk of canceling credible sources, which can lead to mass public confusion and a higher risk of spreading and transmission of the virus.
In the face of a pandemic, it is important for governments to be transparent and to provide clear and honest information to the public. In addition, it is dangerous for politicians to politicize this pandemic. At such times, the message of government leaders must be consistent so that the public can regain confidence in civil servants.
Governments and figures in the media should be based on expert information, on exact and accurate information provision, in a sensitive and precise manner. The emergence of this virus provides an opportunity for the general public and healthcare professionals to fight together against a common threat. If health organizations properly manage, educate and address people’s problems, there is a major opportunity to combat the level of distrust of anti-science movements in recent years.