Ask The Medic

Understanding how social media spreads the Misinformation Pandemic is not always easy.

Our Misinformation Medic has been hard at work, decoding the lingo, so that you can better explain the dangers to your loved ones – without drawing blank stares!

What is misinformation?

Misinformation is false or incorrect information or advice. It can be spread with or without the intention to mislead or deceive. Either way, people are misinformed.

Misinformation can be a rumour, hoax, conspiracy, prank or falsified information. It can even take the form of news parody or satire. E.G. Tom Hanks in quarantine with Wilson!

Isn’t misinformation just ‘fake news’?

The term ‘fake news’ was coined to describe a lie that takes the appearance of real news with the aim of deception.

It is no longer a useful term as certain public figures have begun to use to counter something they disagree with. It has also become a catch-all for anything deceptive or disagreeable. With ‘news’ included in the term, it excludes the many other ways misinformation now spreads online E.G. from an individual’s opinion post, or a conspiracy theory Facebook group.

We’ve used the term ‘misinformation’ for this campaign as it encompasses the bulk of what we’re seeing spread around about COVID-19.

I’ve heard about disinformation too? How is misinformation different?

Misinformation is a catch all term which includes ‘disinformation’. While misinformation encompases false information whether it was intended to mislead or not, disinformation focuses solely on false information, spread deliberately to deceive. Disinformation is fabricated or manipulated content, intended to cause division – pot stirring if you will.

Interestingly the word ‘disinformation’ comes from dishonest origins. Joseph Stalin coined the term ‘dezinformatsia’ during the soviet era as it sounded French and could be claimed to have western origins.

What sort of misinformation is being spread about COVID-19?

Since COVID-19 made an appearance in late 2019, related misinformation has spread exponentially, mimicking the virus itself. Much has focussed on:

  • Its origins – Rumors range from the virus being released at a lab in Wuhan, to the CIA engineering it as a bio-weapon against China. Even Bill Gates masterminding the virus to curb the human race. All have obviously been debunked. 
  • Absurd prevention claims – From drinking bleach to gargling lots of salt water, neither of which are going to protect you from COVID-19 and both will likely land you in hospital, COVID-19 or not. 
  • 5G being responsible – This conspiracy claims the 5G network roll out is related to COVID-19. Celebrities such as Woody Harrelson, MIA and John Cusack have been pushing this theory, increasing its reach through their large audiences with anti-vaxxer groups also co-opting it for their own narrative. 

While some have been created with the intention to manipulate, others have been spread because people believe them to be true. Either way, damage is done.

Is COVID-19 misinformation really harmful?

What is the impact of one-third of Americans believing that COVID-19 started in a lab? What does it matter if some people think the pope has the virus? Misinformation wears down our trust in public institutions, however the damage is hard to quantify. During the pandemic, false public health information illustrates the real world harm of online misinformation.

  • Drinking bleach has been suggested as a prevention method, with a poison centre in Charlottesville having to issue warnings against the practice.
  • 5G towers are being attacked and burnt down around the world. Seriously! So far this has actually happened in the UK, New Zealand, the Netherlands and Ireland.
  • Many COVID-19 rumors target Chinese and the broader asian community, including warnings to stay away from certain areas, with Australian doctors seeing a sharp rise in physical racist abuse cases.
  • Hundreds of thousands of people are subscribing to Youtube channels and Facebook groups peddling false medical advice, with some wrongly believing they are less susceptible to the virus, opting to ignore public health advice. 

This misinformation is diverting the efforts of governments and public health officials who already have their hands full with the COVID-19 pandemic, let alone a Misinformation Pandemic.

How are social media platforms responsible for the spread of misinformation?

Social media platforms earn more money the longer you stay on their platform. This means they can collect more data on you – insights into what you like and dislike, who your friends are, your spending habits and so much more. They then sell these personal insights to advertisers who pay to serve you ads. The longer you’re online the more ads they can serve. It’s a pretty simple equation, right? The secret sauce lies in serving you the most engaging content that keeps you glued to the screen. This is where our problem begins.

Humans are drawn to sensational, conspiratorial, extremist content. This unbecoming trait isn’t new and certainly wasn’t caused by social media.

While social media didn’t create the content, they’ve supercharged the speed at which it spreads. Algorithms are designed to optimise for engagement above all else. Unfortunately the most engaging content which gains the most traction is often of a conspiratorial or sensationalist nature.

Why has COVID-19 caused an outbreak of misinformation?

Conspiracy theories have always accompanied pandemics and outbreak of disease. As the Black Death swept across Europe in the 1340s, rumors surfaced that Jewish people were poisoning wells. During the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, the US blamed German submarines.

One theory by Florentine statesman Niccolò Machiavelli who lived through the 1523 plague outbreak is that pandemics are surrounded by a sense of impending apocalypse. When people are removed from their day-to-day routines, barricaded inside, they try to make sense of the predicament and look for a cause beyond just the disease. 

A similar train of thought is that conspiracy theories spread during times of crisis because we crave big explanations for seismic events. We want to believe there are forces at work shaping our lives beyond the disease alone.

One thing we can be very confident of is that COVID-19 must be a very interesting phenomenon for psychologists to study. 

Further reading:

Shouldn’t we really blame people for sharing misinformation in the first place?

While some accountability should sit with those who create and share misinformation, when social media algorithms amplify misinformation, they are extending the reach, and so the damage of the post, exponentially further then through the users network alone.

When people engage with a post, whether this is a click, like, comment or share, the interaction is counted as engagement by the algorithm, boosting the post’s amplification potential. This occurs even if someone comments on misinformation to point out its inaccuracy. In this way social media users are often unknowingly amplifying the spread of misinformation.

Malicious actors intending to manipulate users exploit algorithms by creating and seeding disinformation that plays on our vulnerabilities and is likely to go viral. This weakness in social media platforms needs to be addressed.

While people should in-part share in the blame, social media needs to be held accountable for exponentially extending the reach of misinformation by transforming it into viral content.

Learn more about the types of people who share misinformation.

What can social media platforms do about it?

We’re advocating for social media to do two things to reduce the spread of COVID-19 misinformation, allowing the government and public health officials to get back to concentrating on beating COVID-19:

  • Circuit Breaker – Institute a function that identifies COVID-19 content that is starting to go viral and stops the algorithm from amplifying it until it has been fact-checked.
  • Live list –  Maintain a public list of viral COVID-19 content so that health officials can understand what misinformation is spreading and amongst which online communities; allowing the officials to respond effectively and make us more resilient in future.

Find out more and get involved directly here.

Help! My Girlfriend / Dad / Aunty / Brother is spreading misinformation! How do I help correct them?

Someone you know spreading rumours on video calls with friends and family, or circulating COVID-19 remedies on Whatsapp? Poynter created a database collating fact-checked articles from over 70 countries around the world so that you can set the record straight.

If someone you know is posting misinformation on social media, don’t comment on the post itself, even if it is to correct them. By engaging you will only extend the reach. If you know them, the best thing to do is send them a private message. If you don’t know them, just block them.

If you want to upskill your friends, send them our handy checklist teaching them how to detect misinformation and prevent the spread. Give a man a fish, you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish, you feed him for a lifetime.

What can I do about it?

We’ve created a bunch of tools to help you stop the spread of misinformation plus a few more from around the internet. Check out our First Aid Kit.

If you’re fired up and want to see the platforms to take more responsibility for the harms they are causing then join us in demanding action, send a message to the heart of the problem – the social media platforms.

Still have a question? Ask the Medic today: