COVID-19 Infodemic: Misinformation Spreads as Fast as the Virus

During self-isolation and quarantine people all over the world started spending more time online.


With the beginning of the pandemic the WHO announced it battles not just the virus, but also the fakes that surround it, theycalled it infodemic (information + pandemic). While the election’s misinformation could influence your political choice, the pandemic false information is a matter of life and death.

During self-isolation and quarantine people all over the world started spending more time online. Ukrainians started too Internet traffic on quarantine has increased by 25%. Top 3 most popular websites (Google, YouTube, Facebook) among  Ukrainian users remain unchanged for years. Nowadays, these social media companies continue to increase their influence. In March, according to KANTAR data, Russian website Vkontakte was in top 15 websites by reach. 

In March, Ukrainians read the news more. However, our news-reading habits are different from the way we consume information in social media. While positive content in social media сan get a broader audience, in news we are used to reading more negative content. In their research, Stuart Soroka and Stephen McAdams concluded  that the human brain prioritises negative news over positive content. They examined people’s cognitive reactions and found stronger response  to negative news than to positive ones. This phenomenon might  be related to evolutionary mechanisms, since knowledge of danger provides the opportunity to change behavior and increase chances  of survival. However,scholars did not discuss this aspect in the article.

In early April, Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford published a study on types, sources and claims concerning COVID-19. Researchers examined 225 cases of misinformation in the period between January and the end of March 2020. The corpus of English-language fact-checks included verified statements from International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN)  (VoxCheck is a member of IFCN)  and the Google Fact Checking Tool. The authors also collected social media data on engagement regarding these claims. The majority of these fact-checks  (88%) were found on social media platforms. More details on methodology and sampling can be found in the methodological appendix  

Remarkably, 59% of the articles contained truthful information, albeit twisted, recontextualised, or reworked , and 38% were completely fabricated. The authors note that there were many “cheap” fakes, that are fast and easy to create. Despite initial fears, they did not find any deep fakes.

Authors have also found that 20% of all fake statements about COVID-19 are created or disseminated by politicians, opinion leaders and celebrities. The majority of misinformation posts created by ordinary people and shared by them. However, the so-called opinion leaders still have the biggest impact. Their publications constitute 69% of all the social media reach. 

There is a claim that people do not concern about  the quality of information they share on social media. A group of researchers decided to examine  this question and analyzed the dissemination of political news (the results of the study were published in November 2019). The authors found that the study participants can accurately distinguish true headlines from false ones and that they don’t want to spread false information. The researchers questioned the existing statement that people do not care whether the information they spread is true or not. However, they found that social media distract people from thinking about the accuracy of information, and impact on how  people spread false political information. The researchers also found that forcing  participants to think more accuracy of information influence on the quality of news they share. The research was conducted with interventions to show participants news headlines that looked like Facebook news feeds.

In March 2020, partly the same group of researchers decided to test why people trust false news about COVID-19 and spread them, using  results of the previous study. Collected data from 1600 participants in the experiment confirmed that people do not think about the accuracy of news they want to share. Researchers also found that a simple reminder to check the accuracy of coronavirus headlines affects the quality of news that participants are willing to share. Simply put, the results were exactly the same as for political news. So, if you create a reminder mechanism to let people consider the accuracy of the news they share, it can help reduce the amount of disinformation on social media.

Another team of researchers analyzed five social media platforms: Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, Reddit and Gab, to see  how information disseminated and compare it to epidemiological models. They identified features of each platform by the number of comments, shares, topics raised during the survey, and so on. They identified the most popular social media – YouTube and Twitter. The authors also examined  how  true and false information spread. They found a strong linear correlation between the number of messages/reactions, both for questionable and trusted sources, with the speed of information dissemination within each platform. They also claimed that  Twitter is the most neutral social media.

So why fake pandemic news matters, when people almost all over the world are on quarantine?

Senior Lecturer in Social and Cultural Artificial Intelligence at King’s College London, Dr. Daniel Allington, found in his pilot study that people who believe in various COVID-19 fakes often fail to follow healthcare guidelines. In particular, people who believe that the coronavirus is related to the 5G , spend more time outdoors, rarely wash their hands for 20 seconds and don’t follow the rules of social distancing. The same trend, albeit weaker, is observed for those who believe that the coronavirus was created in the lab and that the pandemic was planned by pharmaceutical companies and government agencies.

Coronavirus is the first pandemic in the history of humankind when people use social media that is a place where anyone can share whatever information they want. And misinformation is spreading faster than the virus itself. That’s precisely why a lot of scientists, public figures and governments urged social media companies  like  Facebook, Google, Twitter, to fight against  the COVID-19 disinformation on their platforms. Many have already introduced new policies, many governments have agreed to collaborate or even created departments dedicated to fight disinformation. However, when it comes to overcome  an infodemic, as well as a pandemic, humanity’s success depends on each and every one of us. 

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