Written by Faith SIngh
Edited by Anling Chen
In the age of technology, where we can get countless information at the tip of our fingers, the hard part comes from distinguishing truth from error. We are often cautioned to avoid using google for medical advice to avoid unwarranted panic. However, throughout the coronavirus pandemic many people have suffered an information overload, between major news outlets, press conferences from government officials, medical journals, Facebook posts and other various social media postings. Seemingly everyday on the hour there was new information relating to the coronavirus pandemic, which in turn began to leave people with more questions than answers. Unfortunately these conflicting sources of information began to exacerbate the disconnect between the public and the scientific community. The COVID-19 pandemic was in turn a breeding ground to its own epidemic of misinformation which continues to wreak havoc on society.
The dangers of misinformation in healthcare spread far and wide, as they expand beyond trivial arguments and can lead to dangerous and life-threatening consequences. “The uncertainty surrounding the coronavirus, paired with intense global demand for information, created a perfect storm of speculation, conspiracy, and sharing of false or even harmful information. Complicating the situation, prominent public figures—including celebrities and politicians—were among the primary drivers of engagement around COVID-19 misinformation in early 2020.” (Simpson & Conner,2020). During the early days of the pandemic there were competing beliefs regarding the legitimacy of the virus, with many people believing the disease was completely made up. Subsequently this led to hesitancy from the public especially in adhering to emerging quarantine, lockdown and masking regulations despite the increasing hospitalization and death rates.
Exacerbating the confusion individuals were often being fed several sources of information from many seemingly credible sources that began to contradict one another. “At the beginning of the pandemic, the medical community also played a role in making the situation even more confusing by giving, in some cases, inaccurate and sometimes contradictory indications on COVID-19.” (Tagliabue et al., 2020). This is highlighted in the contradictory information given regarding the efficacy of masks, in the early pandemic public health officials discouraged wearing of masks, largely due to the shortages. Shortly after, masks became encouraged to help decrease the spread of the virus. Eventually many cities were urged by the CDC to establish mask mandates. Nevertheless, masking regulations are still constantly evolving, especially in light of vaccination status. This contradictory information often leads to distrust from the public, and eventually pushes them to look for other sources of information.
A major contributor to this confusion was the sheer amount of information that was given to the public, often mingling fact with opinion. “Many major news outlets, reporters and editors with no medical or public health training were reassigned to cover the unfolding pandemic and are scrambling to get up to speed with complex scientific terminology, methodologies, and research, and then identify, as well as vet, a roster of credible sources.” (Pazzanese, 2020). Without any concrete treatment many people were left scrambling with how they should protect themselves against this pandemic, this gave birth to various remedies meant to lend aid. Subsequently it led to the rampant purchase of unauthorized drugs without consultation with a medical professional, and the use of harsh chemicals and disinfectants in unapproved ways. These remedies are continuously spread throughout the waves of social media and range from simple home remedies such as increasing vitamin C intake to using anti-parasitic horse medicine to treat COVID-19.
In these trying times it is understandable for people to feel overwhelmed and anxious, especially when battling something so unknown. However the misinformation spread through the various forms of social media just further spreads fear and stigma, and continues to expand the distrust of the general public to the larger professional and scientific community. It is vital that during these uncertain times public health officials should provide clear and concise information. As well as educating the general public about the threat of misinformation, this can be demonstrated with warnings populating posts on major social media outlets regarding anything relating to coronavirus and the pandemic. By teaching the public the importance of vetting sources and not always accepting information at face-value we can increase the public’s media literacy and help to decrease the spread of the misinformation virus.
Pazzanese, C. (2020). Battling the pandemic of misinformation. The Harvard Gazette. https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2020/05/social-media-used-to-spread-create-covid-19-falsehoods/
Simpson, E., & Conner, A. (2020) Fighting coronavirus misinformation and disinformation. Center for American Progress. https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/technology-policy/reports/2020/08/18/488714/fighting-coronavirus-misinformation-disinformation/
Tagliabue, F., Galassi, L., & Mariani, P. (2020). The "Pandemic" of Disinformation in COVID-19. SN comprehensive clinical medicine, 1–3. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1007/s42399-020-00439-1
Padela, A. I., & Punekar, I. R. (2009). Emergency medical practice: advancing cultural competence and reducing health care disparities. Academic Emergency Medicine, 16(1), 69-75. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1553-2712.2008.00305.x
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