Although the world has witnessed numerous pandemics in the past, the present COVID-19 pandemic illustrates a unique phenomenon on the global stage: social media intermingling with the spread of health information.
For this reason, the World Health Organization (WHO) has claimed that the COVID-19 pandemic is coupled with an “infodemic,” which is the “overabundance of information, both online and offline” . A consequence of this is the spread of “fake news” – misinformation and disinformation that mimics factual news content, deceiving people with false or misleading claims [2,3]. While misinformation occurs because of error, disinformation occurs because of intentional design . In light of fake news’ dire effects on public and global health, it is relevant now, during a global pandemic, that health information is correctly communicated to the masses.
According to the WHO, the spread of health information regarding COVID-19 should take an evidence-based approach . Keeping with this recommendation, the voices of scientists, medical practitioners, and public health experts have been prioritized in the media. In Canada, for example, Google displays links for the WHO and the Government of Canada as first-line options for COVID-19 information. Evidence-based information is also distributed from public health officials to provincial government websites and social media accounts . Through these methods, governments are able to carefully oversee COVID-19-related information distributed online, ensuring that the public is correctly informed on the status of the pandemic. This also allows for the debunking of fake news based on rumours and conspiracies through fact-checking and evidence-based counterarguments .
The WHO has also been actively collaborating with several digital companies and social media firms to ensure the spread of science and evidence-based health information. However, the sheer abundance of platforms and websites that can be used to disseminate information makes it difficult to eradicate fake news with current technology . Despite this setback, campaigns against the spread of fake news have been launched, including Verified by the United Nations and SPOT Fake News Online by News Media Canada [4,7]. Such campaigns ensure individuals are receiving valid information regarding COVID-19, and support their ability to distinguish fake news from real news.
Even so, fake information is still widely circulated. Aside from government-regulated websites and media channels, mis- and disinformation can be shared by anyone online, especially through social media. With no serious repercussions in place, certain aspects of social media continue to inadvertently aid the spread of fake news. For example, a study on Twitter found that disinformation can be promoted by malicious actors, including human users or spambots . More specifically, when focusing on the spread of mis- and disinformation about vaccines, it was found that many bots use artificial intelligence to share conflicting scientific evidence to emphasize a divide in the medical and scientific community. Additionally, some profiles use clickbait to attract users into a web of related content that could lead to self-confirmation of fake news. It is no surprise then that social media is one of the most common perpetrators of fake news and thereby one of the biggest concerns of the public health community .
The spread of fake news through social media could also be attributed to an individual’s likelihood to believe false information. Cyber-risk researchers at Stanford Engineering used an adapted disease transmission model to study the susceptibility of an individual to an excerpt of fake news . The logic behind this study was that fake news, which spreads like a virus, could be prevented by interfering with its transmission. Researchers measured how many individuals believed the fake news piece, or were “infected” by it, and found that, like a disease, prolonged exposure made them more likely to believe it. They concluded that high exposure to an excerpt of fake news, as seen on social media platforms, makes it more likely that individuals believe the fake news they encounter. This conclusion could explain why there has been such a strong apprehension against mask use during the COVID-19 pandemic, despite extensive advocacy by public health officials and experts supporting the measure to curb the spread of the disease. Ultimately, repeated exposure to fake news campaigns could sway public opinion in an unsafe direction — a dangerous implication that has already divided public health opinions and encouraged inappropriate action.
The same researchers also made reference to a person’s inherent ability to believe fake news if it reinforces their own convictions – a phenomenon known in psychology as confirmation bias . For example, if someone dislikes wearing a mask for their protection, they will favour and recall information that supports their stance more than evidence-based information, thereby undermining public health recommendations and policies in the process. A similar phenomenon has been seen with the anti-vaccine movement; the spread of disinformation about vaccines has been connected to the decrease in immunization rates in developed countries . Individuals are also more likely to believe a news excerpt if it comes from a figure they admire, such as a celebrity, a politician, or a social media influencer .
A different study found that people who rely on social media for their news are more likely to be exposed to and believe fake news than those who follow traditional media . In addition, the study showed that Twitter circulated the most inaccurate information regarding COVID-19, and that social media users in Canada were more likely to defy public health recommendations, like social distancing, compared to readers of traditional media . These results not only support the notion that social media platforms are one of the more menacing perpetrators of the spread of fake news, but that they also offer alternative reasoning to explain why fake news continues to spread. If it isn’t our inherent nature to fulfil a confirmation bias, it is our use of social media that increases our exposure to false information, propagates its spread, and consequently nurtures harmful beliefs and actions.
Despite the harmful consequences of the spread of misinformation on social media, it is difficult to imagine a world without it. The second information revolution, also known as the digitization of information, has brought positive additions to public health; at the population level, this includes the promotion of social dialogue surrounding health issues, increased accessibility to information, and improved interaction between people and various health services . The notable increase in connectedness when establishing an online community via social media platforms may even relieve personal stress and anxiety experienced due to the pandemic. Therefore, while social media may seem like an ideal target for preventing the dissemination of fake news, regulation of news spread online must not silence the much-needed social dialogues surrounding the pandemic that otherwise promote social integration and mental well-being. These are important considerations to take into account when developing strategies against the spread of mis- and disinformation.
Although social media use aids the spread of fake news, we cannot neglect the role of social media firms and the government in facilitating the spread of mis- and disinformation online. Large firms like Facebook, Google, and Twitter have previously come under criticism for their lax compliance with the European Union’s (EU) Code of Practice on Disinformation . The Center for Countering Digital Hate also reported that Facebook and Twitter had been complacent in removing fake news related to COVID-19, allowing mis- and disinformation about COVID-19 conspiracies and anti-vaccination information to spread . While these multinational firms have separately attempted to hire more fact-checkers, flag reported posts, and prioritize the removal of spambots, the algorithms in place were not able to eradicate the spread of fake news early in the pandemic and may have contributed to the current media polarization. Even with corrected algorithms, the WHO’s reliance on social media as a prominent platform for spreading health information is risky given that mis- and disinformation can still spread. It may thus be beneficial for social media firms to collectively target fake news with a more systematic approach towards cybersecurity; one that filters mis- and disinformation across all platforms.
Further, countries have different approaches to regulating the spread of mis- and disinformation. For example, anti-misinformation campaigns may vary according to their unique definition of “fake news” . Several countries also have different regulations on social media firms to control the spread of fake news . Tools for advertisement filtering, for example, are only possible in some EU member states. Therefore, government-led regulation of health information spread can be highly variable between countries. This suggests a need for increased consistency in the handling of mis- and disinformation worldwide.
Overall, there is a pressing need for better cooperation between social media firms and governments to ensure that consistent regulations are in place to manage the spread of fake news. Additionally, given the aforementioned examples by which individuals may spread fake news, there is also an important need for education individuals concerning how to think critically about information presented online. Finland, for example, teaches students in primary and secondary schools about the various disciplines in which fake news can be presented to them, and how they can critically respond . Yet, even with education, interventions that minimize the amount of mis- and disinformation available online are still necessary. Therefore, a comprehensive solution against the spread of fake news should not only promote individual and population-level education concerning mis- and disinformation content and distribution, but also enforce population-level regulation through the actions of social media firms and governments.
Taken together, fake news is a negative consequence of online platforms that will likely persist until better algorithms and artificial intelligence are created to bypass it. While governments, the WHO, and social media firms attempt to minimize the spread of mis- and disinformation, it is clear that more work needs to be done by and between these actors to create a comprehensive response to the current infodemic. Parallel to our use of masks to curb the spread of disease in the COVID-19 pandemic, preventing the spread of mis- and disinformation online helps curb the spread of fake news now and in the years to come.
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