COVID-19 ‘infodemic’ persists, could worsen
As COVID-19 spread early this year, experts voiced concerns about the spread of misinformation related to the disease on social media.
For some physicians, this anxiety persists, fed by new misinformation campaigns.
“The anti-vaccine movement has enlarged its remit to also campaign against contact tracing and social distancing,” Peter J. Hotez, MD, PhD, professor of pediatrics and dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, told Healio. “It is now a full-blown anti-science movement.”
An editorial published in The Lancet Infectious Diseases warned of the dangers of the COVID-19 “infodemic” and noted that the circulation of medical information beyond expert circles before it has been reviewed can be particularly dangerous.
“Fake news, misinformation and conspiracy theories have become prevalent in the age of social media and have skyrocketed since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic,” the authors wrote. “This situation is extremely concerning because it undermines trust in health institutions and programs.”
At WHO’s first infodemiology conference last month, experts discussed how to properly manage medical information; create tools to understand, measure and control infodemics; build research agendas for information management; and create common community practices related to research.
Stefano Burzo, MA, from the University of British Columbia’s political science department, said during the conference that there is “a long road ahead” in combatting misinformation. Anatoliy Gruzd, PhD, associate professor and director of the social media lab at Ryerson University in Toronto, noted the unique considerations of handling social media data.
"Unlike data generated in labs by researchers, social media data [are] generated by users and being curated by social media platforms,” Gruzd said during the conference. “For researchers, we have to negotiate policies and expectations from both users and the platforms, and consider not just technical but ethical issues of handling such data."
Aaron E. Glatt, MD, chairman of the department of medicine and chief of infectious diseases at Mount Sinai South Nassau in Oceanside, New York, told Healio that physicians can help patients by discussing their concerns and reviewing how they receive medical information.
He cited the conversation about hydroxychloroquine’s use as a COVID-19 treatment as a recent example of the rapid spread of COVID-19 misinformation.
“The only good way to get medical information is to see the data published — I can assess it, and I can tell you ‘this is good’ or ‘this is garbage,’" Glatt said. “On social media, a person can videotape [himself or herself] and say, ‘I have the cure for everything under the sun — just take this,’ but they don't present any data. It excites tremendous amounts of interest in both the public and the lay press, but nobody is assessing it.”
Glatt said study retractions, which have occurred during the pandemic in publications including The Lancet and may be caused by a rush to publish new data, have the potential to harm public perception of peer-reviewed medical research.
"It's a black eye, but not a knockout punch,” he said. “It is certainly something I wish we did not have to deal with, because it hurts our credibility. It makes people say, ‘They just told me to do this, but now they retracted the article, so you were wrong.'”
In late March, the FDA authorized the emergency use of hydroxychloroquine for COVID-19 treatment, then rescinded the authorization months later, noting that it is unlikely to be effective against the illness. Prescriptions for the drug skyrocketed in the early days of the pandemic, and its use is still hotly debated, despite mounting evidence that it does not work.
In a recent article in Microbes and Infection, Hotez predicted that the COVID-19 “infodemic” would only get worse due to a failure to counteract what he sees as a growing anti-science movement.
“Now we’re even seeing a disinformation coming from the White House, which is concerning,” Hotez said.
- Editors. Lancet Infect Dis. 2020;doi:10.1016/S1473-3099(20)30565-X.
- Hotez P. Microbes Infect. 2020;doi:10.1016/j.micinf.2020.05.Q10.
- WHO press conference.