Hit or miss? COVID-19 misinformation clouds the facts

Dany Nafatyuk, Editor and Webmaster

Opinion

In the fight against the COVID-19 virus, a familiar obstacle has made its presence known: the proliferation of “fake news” has shown itself to have a powerful influence upon the popular consciousness concerning the virus and the steps taken to contain it, so much so that the Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO), Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, has said, “We’re not just fighting an epidemic; we’re fighting an infodemic”.

An important distinction is made between disinformation and misinformation—the former is the intentional spreading of false or misleading information while the latter is the unintentional sharing of the same—but both are a serious threat. There is also the matter of malinformation—true information used by dishonest characters to inflict harm on a person, organization, or country.

Throughout the pandemic, false information about the virus has spread swiftly. The nature of social media platforms has furthered an environment that has had the effect of complicating the response from public health authorities, facilitated pervasive confusion, and by doing so, contributed to coronavirus deaths.
The way the coronavirus pandemic has occurred and the scientific understanding of it has progressed created the conditions for widespread sharing of misinformation—a problem in and of itself and a problem in the way it aids disinformation producers.

It is thought that by the halfway point of 2020, almost half of all adults had consumed some sort of fake news about COVID-19. That misinformation included opinions that 5G waves spread coronavirus or that American multibillionaire and former chairman of Microsoft Bill Gates was planning to use the virus as an excuse to implant microchips into the bodies of vaccine recipients.

Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same, or one day we will spend our sunset years telling our children and our children’s children what it was once like in the United States where men were free.”

— Ronald Reagan

In reaction to the deluge of misinformation, Facebook, Twitter, and other social media platforms began to take measures to warn users about false information that they may encounter by working with fact-checkers to flag content dealing with coronavirus in general, and, in Facebook’s case, preventing the sharing of misinformation altogether, though too often the effort amounted to attempting to hold back the tide. Additionally, the variety in the types of misleading messages has made it impossible to understand the full scope of the COVID-19 infodemic and its effects.

The pandemic that began with the shared experience of lockdown and stay-at-home orders has evolved into a patchwork of different restrictions and privileges. COVID-19 conditions have begun to vary substantially by location: with some areas successfully containing the virus, some handling continuous growth, and others wrestling with re-outbreaks, one can expect a greater diversity of the state- or local-specific public health standards. The differentiation of public health conditions, lack of certainty around the coronavirus, and lack of local media resources are likely to lead to the continued spread of misinformation.

The threat posed by false information reinforces the importance of proactively attempting to identify and distinguish fake/manipulative information from genuine news. Though not an easy task by any means and one likely to often fail, the future of the democratic world lies in our continuing to try.