NORWICH, England — For the sane and decent, it’s hard to imagine why anyone would want to spread misinformation and fear during a time like this. Unfortunately, fake news regarding the coronavirus continues to spread. Now, a recent piece of research that investigated the effect of misinformation on influenza, monkeypox, and norovirus outbreaks says that curbing the spread of Covid-19 fake news, misinformation, and harmful advice can help save lives.
Fake news is usually spread with political or financial interests in mind, but during an unprecedented pandemic like right now, seemingly “harmless” inaccurate reporting can literally kill.
“Fake news is manufactured with no respect for accuracy, and is often based on conspiracy theories. Worryingly, research has shown that nearly 40 percent of the British public believe at least one conspiracy theory, and even more in the US and other countries,” comments professor Paul Hunter in a release. “When it comes to COVID-19, there has been a lot of speculation, misinformation and fake news circulating on the internet – about how the virus originated, what causes it and how it is spread. Misinformation means that bad advice can circulate very quickly – and it can change human behavior to take greater risks.”
Professor Hunter cited the puzzling rise in anti-vaccination beliefs as a recent example of how harmful fake information can be to medical efforts.
“People in West Africa affected by the Ebola outbreak were more likely to practice unsafe burial practices if they believed misinformation. And here in the UK, 14 percent of parents have reported sending their child to school with symptoms of contagious chickenpox – violating school policies and official quarantine advice,” he continues.
Risky behavior that may be encouraged by fake news regarding coronavirus include not self-isolating, not washing hands, sharing food with others, and not disinfecting surfaces.
“Worryingly, people are more likely to share bad advice on social media, than good advice from trusted sources such as the NHS, Public Health England or the World Health Organisation,” professor Hunter says.
The study’s authors created theoretical simulations that incorporated real human behavioral tendencies, the mapped spread of other infectious diseases, incubation and recovery times, and the speed & frequency of both social media and in-person information sharing.
The tendency for many modern adults to inherently distrust conventional authorities was also taken into account. As well as the troubling truth that people generally seem to share fake news more often than real news.
“No previous studies have looked in such detail at how the spread of misinformation affects the spread of disease,” adds Dr. Julii Brainard. “We found that misinformation during epidemics of infectious disease could make those outbreaks more severe.”
So, how can we fight the spread of fake news? Researchers tested a few different methods, such as “drowning out” misinformation with facts, and providing better education.
“We tested strategies to reduce misinformation. In our first study, focusing on the flu, monkeypox and norovirus, we found that reducing the amount of harmful advice being circulated by just 10 percent – from 50 percent to 40 percent – mitigated the influence of bad advice on the outcomes of a disease outbreak,” Dr. Brainard explains. “Making 20 percent of the population unable to share or believe harmful advice – or ‘immunizing’ them against fake news, had the same positive effect.
“Our second study, which focused on norovirus, showed that even if 90 percent of the advice is good, some disease will still circulate. In our second study, we were also interested in the ‘herd immunity’ levels required to ‘immunize’ people against fake news. The modeling suggests that any ‘immunity’ against bad advice reduces outbreak impacts,” she concludes. “But while we used very sophisticated simulation models, it is important to remember that this is not an observational study based on real behavior. The efficacy of implementing such strategies to fight fake news needs to be tested in real world settings, with costs and benefits ideally compared with real world disease reduction.”
The study is published in Revue-Depidemiologie-Et-De-Sante-Publique.