The Misinformation Pandemic

October 23, 2021
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Executive Summary

The world has not only grabbed with the COVID-19 pandemic, but also a misinformation epidemic that has done considerable damage to the public health infrastructure. In this brief, we examine the causes, effects, and implications of the COVID-19 misinformation epidemic.

Introduction

As the COVID-19 pandemic ravaged every corner of the world, another emerged subtly by its side: the misinformation epidemic. Within the first three months of 2020, researchers estimate that at least 800 deaths were due to COVID-19 misinformation. By July 2020, a startling 71% of Americans had heard of the widely circulating conspiracy theory that the pandemic was planned by the all-powerful. After the creation of the COVID vaccine, vaccine misinformation has been a force to be reckoned with in antagonizing the rollout of the vaccine and successful implementation of public health protocols. In the face of one of the worst public health threats in modern history, the outstanding prevalence of misinformation and the often unabashed confidence it is told is vastly detrimental to the unified goal of overcoming the pandemic and building back our society, economy, and public health infrastructure.

Overview

Causes and Effects of the Misinformation Epidemic

  • Humans are wired to share negative news, and much of the news surrounding COVID-19 has been negative.
  • Misinformation is more successful when the public has less information on a topic. A novel pandemic is the perfect environment for misinformation to take hold.
  • Unproven medications have been touted as treatments for COVID-19 despite lacking any scientific evidence

How did the misinformation epidemic gain so much momentum? This traction has deep underlying psychological, educational, and political motivations. Firstly, humans are wired to share negative news over positive news. A study conducted by Soroka and McAdams found that negative news elicits stronger and more sustained reactions than does positive news, and much of the news surrounding COVI-19 is negative. Misinformation and fake news feeds on the fear that already surrounds the unraveling of a mysterious, damaging new public health phenomenon. Additionally, misinformation thrives where the public does not have a firm grasp on the nature of the situation. A novel pandemic elicits uncertainty, worry, and desperation, so misinformation takes the place of rationality. This has led to the discussion of unproven medications as treatment for COVID, such as hydroxychloroquine—two related antimalarial drugs. Similarly, Ivermectin—a medication used to treat parasitic infections—was touted as a potential COVID-19 treatment in a preprint that used flawed statistical methodology. However, no legitimate scientific studies have been conducted to validate the safety and efficacy of these proposed treatments.

Vaccine Hesitancy

  • A small group of individuals are responsible for the vast majority of COVID-19 misinformation.
  • Vaccine-hesitant individuals tend to have beliefs about the vaccine that have been proven false.


Beyond a primal, psychological rationale, misinformation can be spread deliberately for political or social gain in the form of disinformation. Just twelve people are behind the bulk of the misleading and inaccurate claims about COVID vaccines on social media. These include prominent anti-vaccine activists and alternative health entrepreneurs and physicians. Feeding on the fear and desperation of the public, these figures find ways to profit. Most misinformation and disinformation that has circulated about COVID-19 vaccines has focused on vaccine development, safety, and effectiveness, as well as COVID-19 denialism. Reducing public confidence in a vaccine is extremely detrimental to public health, as 75% of a population needs to accept the vaccine in order to reach herd immunity. Currently, only about 59% of Americans are fully vaccinated against COVID-19. According to a recent YouGov poll, 62% of vaccine rejectors believe that the vaccine causes infertility, and 69% believe it causes changes in a person’s DNA. Half of vaccine rejectors think the vaccine includes a microchip, and another half think vaccines have been shown to cause autism (YouGov). While these claims have been debunked, the deliberate spread of misinformation has contributed greatly to the barrier back to normal life.

Analysis and Conclusion

The epidemic has become so widespread that the CDC and WHO have created resources to mobilize citizens to confront misinformation where it usually begins: in online circles. WHO recommends citizens report inaccurate and harmful information to the hosting social media site, and even has a web page with instructions on how to do so. However, reporting posts that have already reached a large audience can sometimes be unproductive, so the CDC has provided some alternative suggestions. They recommend monitoring misinformation being shared in your communities online circles, and sharing accurate, clear, and easy-to-find information that addresses common misconceptions. They have provided an extensive online resource explaining how to do so, as well as resources on tailoring your message to those in your community. Individuals who seek accurate, helpful information regarding the pandemic can be pointed to WHO’s COVID-19 “mythbusters” page, which disproves some common misconceptions seen online. Those who want to stay up-to-date on the spread of misinformation should take advantage of the CDC’s weekly Vaccine Confidence Insights Reports.

Author Information

Stephanie Wang
Public Health Policy Lead

Stephanie is a high school senior, researcher, and Public Health Policy Lead. She is a passionate advocate of public health literacy and the author of Epidemiology Unmasked: An Introduction to Epidemiology in Public Health. In particular, Stephanie is interested in domestic, health, and educational policy and has conducted research on vaccine distribution, Alzheimer's disease, and public health education.

Samantha Overhauser
Public Health Policy Lead

Samantha is a college student in the final year of a BBA in economics. She serves as a Public Health Policy Brief Lead for YIP, as well as serving on the student union board at Baylor University. She is currently conducting research on health equity and safety net policy and intends to pursue a Master’s in Public Health.

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