By: Mohamed Afify

We have all been exposed to Covid misinformation throughout the pandemic. Social media headlines, word of mouth and inaccurate reporting by news organizations have all contributed to the spread of Covid misinformation. This polluted information environment amidst the COVID-19 pandemic led some to call this an ‘infodemic’. [1] With the amount of information we process daily, it can be challenging to decipher accurate and inaccurate information. However, with some due diligence, we can do our part in limiting the spread of misinformation.

Misinformation and Disinformation

First, we should distinguish between these two terms to better understand what we mean when referring to misinformation. To best distinguish these two terms that are often used interchangeably, we can use the following example. Former President Donald Trump had a history of making statements that have been proven to be untrue. [2] Trump made countless statements downplaying the seriousness of the virus early in the pandemic. He also claimed COVID-19 could be cured by injecting disinfectants. And the administration pushed the conspiracy that the virus was made in a lab in Wuhan without any evidence. [3] 

Some of these statements Donald Trump admittedly knew were false. Bob Woodard’s interviews with Donald Trump demonstrate that Trump knew about the seriousness of the virus early on yet downplayed the dangers intentionally. [4] This is an example of disinformation. While someone who shares what Trump said thinking it to be true, is spreading misinformation.

In short: disinformation is a type of misinformation created to be deliberately deceptive to advance a goal. Misinformation is false information that is produced and spread regardless of an intent to harm or deceive. [5] Now that we can distinguish the difference, it is essential to note where most misinformation comes from and how it starts. 

Sources of Misinformation 

While only 20% of misinformation statements were made by politicians, celebrities or other prominent public figures, these statements accounted for 69% of total social media engagements. [6] Celebrities such as Elon Musk have consistently spread unproven cures and downplayed the threat of the virus. Public officials and institutions can also be used to spread misinformation and general distrust of reputable information. When the CDC advised against wearing masks only to reverse that decision, it created a sense of skepticism. [7]

Public figures who amount to pseudo-scientist have been especially harmful in the spread of COVID misinformation. A group of 12 anti-vaxxers were dubbed the ‘Disinformation Dozen’. [8] This nickname was earned. A study by The Guardian found that 73% of anti-vaxxer content can be traced back to the Disinformation Dozen [9]. And, of course, day-to-day conversations and posts we share also contribute to the spread of misinformation. Therefore, limiting the spread of misinformation requires a double effort by consumers of news and the platforms that harbour misinformation and allow its spread.

Recommendations for platforms 

With Coivid-19 itself, it is best to inoculate people before they get the virus than treat them after being infected. A similar strategy should be adopted by social media platforms. Some suggestions include adding ‘circuit breakers’. This means that during times of high virality of content that might be misleading, moderator teams should prioritize this content to limit its spread. [10] 

Fast-spreading COIVID-19 content should have an alternate ‘circuit breaker’ that temporarily prevents algorithmic amplification. [11] While some companies have this feature, moderators of COVID-19 content that has not been checked should have a warning. [12] Furthermore, serial producers of disinformation and misinformation should be flagged, and their followers should be notified of the misinformation they spread.

Recommendation for Users

In a free democratic society, misinformation is inevitable. Curbing misinformation can be difficult especially considering legal rights. Because of the saliency of COVID-19 in our lives, people have been seeking out more news. A study by GlobalWebIndex found that 67% of respondents sampled across 13 countries, we’re watching more news [13]. Since the pandemic, exposure to online news sites has increased across all age groups from January 2020 to April 2020. [14] The increase in online news consumption indicates that everyday users are a significant contributor to the spread of COVID-19 misinformation. However, this also means that we, as ordinary users, can help mitigate the spread. Nature has outlined eight tips for spotting misinformation and preventing its spread:

Source suspicion. Vague, untraceable sources, such as a doctor friend of a friend’ or ‘scientists say’ without further details, should ring alarm bells.

Bad language. Most trustworthy sources are regular communicators, so poor spelling, grammar or punctuation are grounds for suspicion.

Emotional contagion. If something makes you angry or overjoyed, be on your guard. Miscreants know that messages that trigger strong emotions get shared the most.

News gold or fool’s gold? Genuine scoops are rare. If information is reported by only one source, beware — especially if it suggests that something is being hidden from you.

False accounting. Use of fake social-media accounts, such as @BBCNewsTonight, is a classic trick. Look out for misleading images and bogus web addresses, too.

Oversharing. If someone urges you to share their sensational news, they might just want a share of the resulting advertising revenue.

Follow the money. Think about who stands to gain from you believing extraordinary claims.

Fact-check check. Go past the headlines and read a story to the end. If it sounds dubious, search fact-checking websites to see whether it has already been debunked. [15]

We must mindful that most people who spread misinformation do so unwittingly and without malicious intent. We must be watchful of this when having conversations without friends and family addressing misinformation they have consumed. With gentleness and kindness, we can limit the spread of COVID-19 misinformation and have a more informed community. 

MyOpenCourt: The Vaccine Mediator Tool

MyOpenCourt has developed the Vaccine Mediator tool, which uses AI-powered technology to predict whether a person qualifies for the Vaccine Injury Support Program. The tool will ask users to enter information about their vaccination and about any adverse reactions they may have experienced. This is then used to predict if the user qualifies for Canada’s Vaccine Injury Support Program. To learn more, visit the tool here.

The MyOpenCourt Vaccine Mediator Tool can be used to assist anyone who experienced adverse reactions to the vaccine, including those resulting from a booster shot.

References

  1. https://www.who.int/news-room/feature-stories/detail/fighting-misinformation-in-the-time-of-covid-19-one-click-at-a-time
  2. https://abcnews.go.com/US/spreading-covid-19-misinformation/story?id=70615995
  3. Ibid
  4.  https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-54094559
  5. https://www.businessinsider.com/misinformation-vs-disinformation
  6. https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/technology-policy/reports/2020/08/18/488714/fighting-coronavirus-misinformation-disinformation/
  7. Ibid
  8. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/jul/17/covid-misinformation-conspiracy-theories-ccdh-report
  9. Ibid
  10.  Supra note 10
  11.  https://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/covid-19/health-departments/addressing-vaccine-misinformation.html
  12. Ibid
  13. Ibid
  14. https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-020-01834-3
  15. https://www.nature.com/articles/s41928-020-00532-2.pdf
  16. Supra note 13