COVID-19 Resource Center

COVID-19 Resource Center

February 06, 2020
3 min read

Online misinformation about coronavirus part of a larger, ‘deep-seated problem’

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Peter J. Hotez, MD, PhD 
Peter J. Hotez
Eugene Shapiro 
Eugene Shapiro

Inaccurate medical information on the internet, particularly on social media platforms, has become a prevalent obstacle for health care providers over the past decade. Last week, Bloomberg reported an influx of coronavirus misinformation spreading on various social media platforms — suggesting a need for intervention to offset false and potentially dangerous disease information online.

“We need to have a frank discussion with the tech and e-commerce leaders about taking down health and science misinformation,” Peter J. Hotez, MD, PhD, professor of pediatrics and dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, told Healio. “In regard to vaccines, these organizations have, so far, been unwilling to engage on this, despite House and Senate hearings last year.”

Information about new developments in the 2019 coronavirus outbreak have circulated rapidly online as the disease continues to spread. WHO identified earning public trust as one of its urgent health challenges for the next decade, citing uncontrolled dissemination of misinformation on social media and erosion of trust in public institutions as threats to public health. The CDC’s Vaccinate With Confidence initiative also aimed to block the spread of vaccine misinformation by improving vaccine confidence within at-risk groups and establishing partnerships to contain misinformation.

Hotez noted that graphs, charts and references have proven helpful in refuting scientific misinformation. However, convincing people “deeply dug in” to medical misinformation is difficult using these methods, he added.

In response to a wave of vaccine misinformation, Facebook and Instagram began prompting users in 2019 to visit the WHO and CDC websites for relevant, credible data, while YouTube removed advertising on channels promoting anti-vaccine content. Similarly, Twitter recently began redirecting users to the CDC’s Coronavirus web page when the term coronavirus is entered into the search bar.

Infectious Disease News Editorial Board Member Eugene Shapiro, MD, professor of pediatrics and epidemiology at Yale School of Public Health, believes improvements to educational infrastructure could aid in combating medical misinformation.

“It's a deep-seated problem that is not easily addressed in the short term,” he said. “Over the long term, if there was better education about health, physiology and science in schools, that would go a long way.”


Shapiro also noted that even having a paper published in a peer-reviewed journal may no longer provide assurance that the publication is not disseminating misinformation.

“For years, peer review has been a gold standard for science, with some degree of faith and validity to it,” he said. “You could say, ‘Well, this was published in a peer-reviewed journal.’ That is beginning to have no meaning, or less meaning, because now there are dozens of predatory journals that will charge a fee for publication and publish virtually anything that is written — it doesn't have to be good — and then people cite it as peer reviewed. We have to have set a higher bar.”

Professional organizations have also played a role in offsetting misinformation. Both the AMA and AAP urged the CEOs of online platforms — including Facebook, Amazon, Google, YouTube and Twitter — to address vaccine misinformation on their social media last year.

“’Alternate truth’ seems to be something that is widely accepted these days,” Shapiro said. “I think it's a major problem, the solutions to which are not necessarily easy. I don’t see it going away anytime soon.”

Hotez noted that diseases with heavy media coverage, like the 2019-nCoV outbreak, can often overshadow larger threats to public health.

“For coronaviruses, I think pediatricians and other frontline health providers are just getting up to speed,” he told Infectious Disease News. “But in the United States, it is important to remind families that influenza poses a larger threat. However this situation is fluid and as the nCoV epidemic expands and possibly becomes a pandemic we may need to revise our threat assessment to the U.S.”

In addition, regardless of recent efforts, Hotez believes more action is needed to stop the spread of misinformation.

“Until there are good faith efforts by the tech and e-commerce tech giants to take down anti-science misinformation, this will only get worse,” he said. – by Eamon Dreisbach


Bloomberg. Coronavirus misinformation is spreading all over social media. Accessed February 5, 2020.

CDC. Vaccinate with confidence. Accessed February 5, 2020.

WHO. Urgent health challenges for the next decade. Accessed February 5, 2020.

Twitter. Helping the world find credible information about novel #coronavirus. Accessed February 5, 2020.

YouTube Help: Advertiser-friendly content guidelines. Accessed February 5, 2020.

Disclosures: Hotez and Shapiro report no relevant financial disclosures.