Published March 16, 2022
The COVID-19 pandemic has been fraught with mountains of inaccurate information, so much so that the World Health Organization has declared it a misinformation pandemic or infodemic.
This has created a widening political and ideological rift that has prolonged the pandemic by:
- Encouraging vaccine hesitancy
- Increasing distrust in science
- Discouraging the use of effective preventive/safety measures
- Promoting ineffective — sometimes dangerous or deadly — treatments, and
- Encouraging some to believe the pandemic is a hoax or a government plot.
Researchers at the Center for Health Security at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health have estimated that up to 12 million people across the country refused vaccinations against COVID-19 because of misinformation or disinformation about the vaccine.
False information seems to increase and decrease according to the fluctuation of COVID cases, as evidenced by the increase of inaccurate information that accompanied the rise in cases during the Omicron surge. The level and volume of inaccurate information is so pervasive that a vast majority of Americans believe or are unsure of at least one COVID-19 vaccine falsehood, including the 20% who still believe the COVID-19 vaccines inject a tracking chip that allows the federal government (or Bill Gates) to track you.
This inaccurate or false information has come about through misunderstanding, junk science, and the deliberate creation of falsehoods. There are two distinct types of inaccurate or false information.
- Misinformation is not having the correct factual information. There’s usually no ill will to being misinformed. Misinformation grows easily in the vacuum of reliable information. It also grows when reliable information is available but is improperly disseminated, misunderstood, or results in inconsistent changes in guidelines.
- Disinformation is when a person or groups of people are knowingly spreading false information with the intent to mislead and deceive the public. Disinformation is more insidious/malicious since it is biased, deliberately manufactured, and dispersed to cause a specific result, in many cases political advantage, or to get others to ascribe to a particular viewpoint, religious belief, or conspiracy theory.
Both should be classified as “fake news,” although the term has taken on a new meaning since it was co-opted by former President Trump. Fake news often spreads faster by virtue of being compelling as opposed to accurate information that can often be difficult to fully understand without prior knowledge.
The pervasiveness of the internet, especially social media sites — some specifically created to spread false COVID-19 information — allows for rapid dissemination of “information.” with few filters for inaccurate or misleading information. It is often difficult to tell the difference between reliable sites and untrustworthy sites. Another contribution is the plethora of news outlets with varying viewpoints that has resulted in a wide range of often conflicting information, much of which can be considerably biased and deliberately misleading.
There are other reasons ‘fake news’ can be spread even faster.
- Fake news is often so compelling that it evolves and gets more believable over time, especially when manipulated by politicians for political gains.
- When articles attempting to debunk the inaccurate information are published or posted, the headlines often begin with a summary of the fake news the article is trying to dispute. This repetition of the fake news headline often reinforces the misconception when people only scan the headlines.
- It spreads faster when coming from healthcare professionals — including doctors/politicians Rand Paul and Roger Marshall in the United States Senate — prominent figures such as former President Trump, teachers, and families.
- False or misleading information from healthcare providers has become a growing problem that pits the first amendment right to free speech against the duty of medical and nursing boards to discipline physicians and nurses for spreading false medical information when it is not in the context of a doctor-patient relationship. Currently, medical boards have taken no action on this issue.
COVID-19 misinformation and disinformation, especially about the COVID-19 vaccine, have resulted in so many COVID cases that the healthcare system has been overwhelmed. Strained healthcare workers are finding it increasingly difficult to do their jobs and many are succumbing to burnout and creating critical staffing shortages by leaving the profession. This has had a profound negative impact on overall patient safety and the COVID-19 epidemic, including unnecessary deaths.
The office of U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy issued a request on March 3, 2022, for information surrounding health misinformation, seeking input and data from tech companies, healthcare providers, and community organizations. They hope to assess the impact of health misinformation found on those platforms.
While misinformation might be countered by accurate information presented in an understandable manner, attempts to identify, remove, restrict, or flag misinformation and disinformation on internet sources may be the best way to minimize their impact on the COVID pandemic. As with healthcare professionals outside of the doctor-patient setting, disseminators of false information consider any restrictions as a violation of their first amendment rights despite the adverse consequences of their actions on the pandemic and public health. However, commercial social media platforms are private companies that have the right to monitor and regulate the content of their websites and should take responsibility to increase their efforts to stop the spread of harmful COVID-19 misinformation and disinformation.
The Surgeon General’s findings could possibly lead to an independent watchdog group to monitor various sources for inaccurate and false information and make recommendations to remedy the situation.
Individuals can also assist in limiting the spread of this information by thinking critically about any health information they come across. Some of the steps that can be taken include:
- Trying to identify information that is merely an opinion, is not supported by evidence, and/or uses language that is biased, outrageous, melodramatic, or supportive of conspiracy theories;
- Assessing the reliability of the source of the information, including the author’s credentials and organizations involved;
- Confirming information using trusted sources such as scientific organizations, government websites, healthcare professionals, and unbiased news sources;
- Identifying junk science that has led to inaccurate conclusions or ineffective treatments; and
- Educating others who still believe inaccurate and false information.
Misinformation and disinformation have had a devastating effect on our health and healthcare system. Some of this is due to effects beyond the specific consequences of COVID-19. False information increased the distrust in science and created a widening political rift that has sparked increasing conflicts among politicians and individuals. Both of these have made combating the pandemic more difficult by preventing implementation of effective responses to the pandemic. The most damaging of these was the number of people who refused or avoided the COVID vaccination which could have significantly reduced or even ended the pandemic.
Although we were not able to limit these devastating effects of the COVID pandemic, it is still important to identify and attempt to counter the misinformation and disinformation that is still causing unnecessary death and suffering from COVID-19, undue stress on our healthcare system, rising mental health concerns, and adverse effects on our economy.