“We’re not just fighting a pandemic; we’re fighting an infodemic,” said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the World Health Organization’s director-general, at the Munich Security Conference in February. “Fake news spreads faster and more easily than this virus, and is just as dangerous.”
Since then, the deadly consequences of the coronavirus “infodemic” became impossible to ignore. In Iran, for example, the myth that ingesting methanol – a highly toxic form of alcohol – can kill the coronavirus led to 700 deaths and hospitalisation of 5,000 people. Social media, where the content shared by users is not subject to the same level of scrutiny as mainstream media but can reach millions, is widely seen as the main culprit behind the spread of coronavirus misinformation. An analysis of social media content from around the globe published in the first three months of this year identified more than 2,300 reports from 87 countries that incorporated rumours, stigmas and conspiracy theories related to COVID-19.
Back in March, acknowledging their potential role in navigating the growing coronavirus “infodemic”, Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Microsoft, Reddit, Twitter and YouTube pledged to jointly combat “fraud and misinformation about the virus”. However, given the huge number of social media users, stopping the spread of pandemic fake news on social media has proved to be a daunting task. A significant number of posts containing misinformation about the virus continue to circulate on major social media platforms to this day.
In the early days of the pandemic, elected officials and experts across the world issued warnings about the prevalence of misinformation on social media platforms and encouraged people to get their coronavirus information from newspapers and TV channels instead. After social media rumours about an imminent “shelter in place” order in Massachusetts caused widespread panic, for example, Governor Charlie Baker warned his constituents that they need to “get their news from legitimate places, not from their friend’s friend’s friend’s friend”.
However, it soon became obvious that TV channels and newspapers are also not immune to pandemic fake news, primarily due to their tendency to not challenge or fact-check claims made by prominent politicians and public figures. For example, when British Prime Minister Boris Johnson boasted about continuing to shake hands with “everybody” at the height of the outbreak in March, many news organisations in the country failed to highlight the danger posed by such actions in their reports on the PM’s comments.
And a few weeks later, in April, when Roger Stone, a former adviser to US President Donald Trump, opined against COVID-19 vaccination on a fringe radio show and claimed that “Bill Gates may have created coronavirus to microchip people”, several mainstream newspapers and television channels republished his comments without checking their credibility. As Nature reporter Amy Maxmen pointed out, an article on Stone’s comments published by a mainstream news organisation, which made no effort to debunk them, “has been liked, shared, or commented on, just on Facebook, by more than a million people”.
Fascinated by the apparent failure of many news outlets to navigate information accurately during the pandemic, I turned my attention to different ways in which trusted media sources have spread misinformation. After coming across multiple news reports on a study linking the Bacillus Calmette–Guérin (BCG) vaccination to protection against COVID-19, I decided to take a closer look at the study and its coverage in the media. After a quick web search, I found out that the study in question has only been published on a pre-print server, meaning it has not yet been peer reviewed. Moreover, I identified several limitations to its design, and realised that while it can serve to generate a hypothesis, it cannot be used to demonstrate causality, as also clearly stated by the authors. Despite the study and its limitations being in the public domain, it has been covered in more than 100 news reports, with many portraying it as a breakthrough in the fight against the coronavirus. A vast number of news reports failed to mention that the study is yet to be scientifically scrutinised, and to my surprise, many of them did not feel the need to explain its limitations to their audiences or engage in basic critical analysis to fully inform them about the state of the evidence.
As I evaluated these news reports, I realised that one of the main problems was in the headlines. Most articles on this subject were published under sensational, ambiguous headlines that overshadowed the real findings of the research. For example, one headline referred to the BCG vaccine as a potential “silver bullet” against COVID-19, despite the study itself not nearly making such a claim. This is an important shortcoming, as research shows that when it comes to news articles, most people fail to read beyond the headline.
Fearing the misinterpretation of the study’s results by the public, the WHO issued a scientific brief and emphasised, “There is no evidence that the Bacille Calmette-Guérin vaccine (BCG) protects people against infection with COVID-19 virus. In the absence of evidence, WHO does not recommend BCG vaccination for the prevention of COVID-19.” In response to this, I also wrote a detailed article discussing the alleged link between the BCG vaccine and COVID-19, and explaining why current evidence needs to be interpreted with caution.
Despite all this, several news stories, from seemingly reputable sources, embodying misleading information regarding the link between the BCG vaccine and COVID-19 prevention are still online, without sufficient explanation or a warning that informs the readers of the study’s shortcomings. Here I would also like to stress that hypothesis generating research is not redundant. It has a special place in medical literature as it forms the foundation for more sophisticated research studies. In this case, several clinical trials are under way to study the link between the BCG vaccine and COVID-19 prevention. The results of these trials will further shed light on the extent of the BCG vaccine’s effectiveness against COVID-19. Until we have robust evidence, it is wiser to refrain from unwarranted speculations.
As I try to attract attention to some of the media’s inadequacies during the pandemic, my intention is not to encourage people not to trust mainstream news sources or urge politicians to censor or control the dissemination of news about the pandemic. I am certainly not trying to undermine the work of any researcher, or the freedom of expression either. My sole aim is to emphasise the need to be more cautious during these turbulent times, especially as people’s lives are at stake. Responsible journalism that disseminates verified information, debunks dubious content and publicises good science is an antidote to misinformation and serves as the backbone of our fight against pandemic fake news. The news media, rather than contributing to the “infodemic” for ratings and clicks, can easily help hinder the spread of misinformation by taking a few simple steps: First, media outlets should challenge dubious claims made by politicians and public figures about the pandemic, swiftly and publicly. They should caution the audience when covering unverified information, and where possible, refute the misleading claims. Second, they should insist on framing the articles they publish on the issue with clear, informative, and accurate headlines. Third, they should urge contributing writers and panellists to refrain from making unsubstantiated claims or referring to studies and theories that have not been scientifically scrutinised. Fourth, they should solicit articles from experts that scrutinise and put in context the available evidence to keep readers well-informed.
As news consumers, we can also help defeat the growing “infodemic” by rethinking how we acquire information – most importantly by steering clear of social media and relying on informed, detailed and well-referenced news pieces. Rather than taking the words of politicians, public figures and social media influencers at face value, we should consult websites that promote evidence-based science and publish articles by experts when we look for information on the pandemic. The United Nations’ specialised agencies, like the WHO, and independent public health bodies, like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the United States, regularly publish authoritative content, thus are excellent sources to verify COVID-19 related information.
We need to be more sceptical about the information around us. We need to make sure that we do not spread any news until we have verified it through multiple authentic sources. No matter how big or small, every effort in the right direction has the potential to make a big difference. In the fight against COVID-19, and the “infodemic” that accompanies it, every individual matters and every effort counts. In the words of Rumi, the great Persian poet and philosopher: “You are not a drop in the ocean. You are the entire ocean, in a drop.”