COVID Misinformation Less Prevalent than Believed

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Contrary to what might be expected, misinformation about COVID was less prevalent than for other health topics, researchers found.

Before the COVID pandemic, health misinformation was already widely spread. While all types of information about COVID (including misinformation) were popular between March and May 2020, posts about COVID were more likely to come from governments and academic institutions. Often, these posts were more likely to go viral than posts from sources that routinely spread misinformation.

“At the start of the pandemic, governments and organisations around the world started paying attention to the problem of health misinformation online,” said David Broniatowski, an associate professor at the George Washington University. “But when you compare it to what was going on before the pandemic, you start to see that health misinformation was already widespread. What changed is that, when  COVID-19 hit, governments and social media platforms started paying attention and taking action.”

The researchers collected public posts on Twitter and Facebook at the outset of the pandemic, between March and May 2020, when content about COVID was growing rapidly. They compared those to posts on other health topics from the same time period in 2019, and looked at the credibility of the websites that each post shared. More credible sources included government and academic sources as well as the traditional news media. Sources deemed “not credible” comprised conspiracy-oriented sites and state-sponsored sites known for spreading  propaganda, which were 3.67 times more likely to spread misinformation than credible sites.

“Misinformation has always been present, even at higher proportions before COVID started. Many people knew this, which makes the ensuing misinformation spread during COVID entirely predictable,” said study co-author Mark Dredze, an associate professor at Johns Hopkins University. “Had we been more proactive in fighting misinformation, we may not have been in an anti-vaccination crisis today.”

“These findings suggest that the ‘infodemic’ of misinformation is a general feature of health information online, not one restricted to COVID-19,” Broniatowski said. “Clearly there is a lot of misinformation about COVID, but attempts to combat it might be better informed by comparison to the broader health misformation ecosystem.”

Source: George Washington University

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