While health misinformation is far from a novel phenomenon, never before has it made a larger impact on society than these past two years. To gather information during these fearful and often perilous times, we tend to look to our elected leaders, rely heavily on the facts, and form our own opinions accordingly. Yet what happens when our leaders and experts start contradicting each other? At the end of the day, how do we separate fact from fiction? While the pandemic of misinformation has no simple cure (much like its viral counterpart), the importance of clear, consistent, and trustworthy health messaging is vital to treat the damage that misinformation has inflicted on our global population.
Perhaps one of the more memorable surges of the misinformation pandemic began on April 23rd, 2020 when former US President Donald Trump implied that injecting oneself with household disinfectant should be investigated as a potential treatment for COVID-19. On April 24th, Google search results for the phrase “injecting disinfectants” reached a peak Relative Search Fraction (used to quantify search interest in a topic) of 100 on a scale from 0 to 100 (1). Subsequent analyses by the Centers for Disease Control and the American Association of Poison Control Centers both found that approximately 40% of calls to US poison control centres in April 2020 reported misusing cleaning products; a significant increase from previous years (1). Recently, we have also seen another disturbing surge of this misinformation pandemic associated with the COVID-19 vaccines. Misinformation regarding the COVID-19 vaccines has come in many different forms: a quote by WHO Chief Scientist Dr. Soumaya Swaminathan taken out of context to portray mixing vaccines as “dangerous”, false claims regarding a lack of vaccine efficacy on social media, and conflicting public health information from politicians and health care professionals (2). As a result, over 55% of surveyed US adults expressed hesitation regarding uptake of the vaccine due to concerns regarding efficacy, trust in health officials, and the politicization of the vaccine (2).
Unsplash. (2021). People walking on street during daytime. Photograph, Aziz.
Although there are several sociological explanations as to why individuals spread misinformation so readily, the most relevant explanation is that in the age of social media, information sharing is so spontaneous and rapid that little time is spent analyzing the credibility of information. This swift sharing of information is influenced by three cognitive heuristics: consistency, consensus, and authority (3). Consistency refers to the fact that individuals will likely share information consistent with their past behaviours and beliefs. Consensus relates to the frequency of a certain opinion amongst the rest of society. Studies have shown that low-credibility misinformation is commonly amplified using bot networks and spam accounts to spread false information and perpetuate the illusion of social support (3). Authority refers to the sharing of information that seems to come from a credible and trustworthy source like published research. Yet throughout this pandemic, we have seen several examples of poorly conducted research, clickbait headlines, and misconstrued scientific statements being used as fuel for the spread of misinformation (4).
The pandemic of misinformation poses a significant threat to the health of our global collective. With the notions of vaccine hesitancy and political distrust continuing to spread and overwhelm our healthcare systems, the importance of consistent and trustworthy health messaging is paramount. As stewards of health information, it is our responsibility to ensure that our words, actions, and opinions are credible and help foster a global immunity to misinformation.
Rivera JM, Gupta S, Ramjee D, Hayek GYE, et al. Evaluating interest in off-label use of disinfectants for COVID-19. The Lancet Digital Health [Internet]. 2020;2(11): 564-566. Available from: https://doi.org/10.1016/S2589-7500(20)30215-6
Garett R, Young SD. Online misinformation and vaccine hesitancy. Translational Behavioral Medicine [Internet]. 2021;11(12): 2194-2199. Available from: https://dx.doi.org/10.1093%2Ftbm%2Fibab128
Buchanan T. Why do people spread false information online? The effect of message and viewer characteristics on self-reported likelihood of sharing social media disinformation. PLOS One [Internet]. 2020;15(10). Available from: https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0239666
Nowak BM, Miedziarek C, Pelczynski S, Rzymski P. Misinformation, Fears and Adherence to Preventive Measures during the Early Phase of COVID-19 Pandemic: A Cross-Sectional Study in Poland. Int J Environ Res Public Health [Internet]. 2021;18(22). Available from: https://dx.doi.org/10.3390%2Fijerph182212266