As Covid-19 continues to spread, so does misinformation about it
Nearly three years into the pandemic, Covid-19 remains stubbornly persistent. The same goes for misinformation about the virus.
As Covid cases, hospitalizations and deaths rise in parts of the country, myths and misleading narratives continue to evolve and spread, infuriating overworked doctors and avoiding content moderators.
What began in 2020 as rumors casting doubt on the existence or severity of Covid quickly evolved into often outlandish claims about dangerous technology lurking in masks and supposed miracle cures of unproven drugs, like ivermectin. The rollout of the vaccine last year fueled another wave of unfounded alarm. Now, in addition to all the claims still floating around, there are conspiracy theories about the long-term effects of the treatments, researchers say.
Ideas still thrive on social media platforms, and the constant barrage, which has been building for years now, has made it increasingly difficult to deliver accurate advice, disinformation researchers say. This leaves people already suffering from pandemic fatigue to become even more numb to the lingering dangers of Covid and susceptible to other harmful medical content.
“It’s easy to forget that misinformation about health, including Covid, can still help prevent people from getting vaccinated or create stigma,” said Megan Marrelli, editorial director of Meedan, an organization in nonprofit focused on digital literacy and access to information. “We know for a fact that health misinformation contributes to the spread of real diseases.”
Twitter is of particular concern to researchers. The company recently gutted teams tasked with checking for unsafe or inaccurate material on the platform, ceased to apply its Covid misinformation policy and began basing some content moderation decisions on public polls released by its new owner and CEO, billionaire Elon Musk.
From November 1 to December 5, Australian researchers collected more than half a million conspiratorial and misleading tweets in English about Covid, using terms such as “deep state”, “hoax” and “biological weapon”. The tweets attracted over 1.6 million likes and 580,000 retweets.
The researchers said the volume of toxic material increased late last month with the release of a film that included unsubstantiated claims that Covid vaccines triggered ‘the biggest orchestrated death in the history of the world’. “.
Naomi Smith, a sociologist at Federation University Australia who helped conduct the research with Timothy Graham, a digital media expert at Queensland University of Technology, said Twitter’s misinformation policies had helped stifle anti-vaccination content which was common on the platform in 2015 and 2016. From January 2020 to September 2022, Twitter suspended over 11,000 accounts for violating its Covid misinformation policy.
Now, said Dr Smith, the protective barriers are “breaking down in real time, which is both interesting as an academic and absolutely terrifying”.
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“Before Covid, people who believed in medical misinformation usually talked to each other, contained in their own little bubble, and you had to go and do a little bit of work to find that bubble,” she said. “But now you don’t have to do anything to find this information – it’s presented in your feed along with other types of information.”
Several prominent Twitter accounts that had been suspended for spreading unsubstantiated Covid claims have been reinstated in recent weeks, including those of Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, a Republican from Georgia, and Robert Malone, a skeptic of the vaccines.
Mr. Musk himself has used Twitter to weigh in on the pandemic, predicting in March 2020 that the United States was at risk of having “almost zero new cases” by the end of April. (More than 100,000 positive tests were reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the last week of the month.) This month, he took aim at Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, who will soon step down as chief adviser. President Biden’s doctor. and longtime director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Mr Musk said Dr Fauci should be prosecuted.
Twitter did not respond to a request for comment. Other major social platforms, including TikTok and YouTube, said last week they remained committed to tackling Covid misinformation.
YouTube prohibits content – including videos, comments and links – about vaccines and Covid-19 that contradicts recommendations from local health authorities or the World Health Organization. Facebook’s Covid-19 Content Policy is over 4,500 words. TikTok said it has removed more than 250,000 videos for Covid misinformation and worked with partners such as its content advisory board to develop its enforcement policies and strategies. (Mr. Musk disbanded Twitter’s advisory board this month.)
But the platforms have struggled to enforce their Covid rules.
Newsguard, an organization that tracks online misinformation, discovered this fall that entering “covid vaccine” in TikTok led it to suggest searches for “covid vaccine injury” and “covid vaccine warning”, while the same query on Google led to recommendations for “walking”. -in the covid vaccine” and “types of covid vaccines”. A search on TikTok for “mRNA vaccine” turned up five videos with false claims in the top 10 results, researchers say. TikTok said in a statement that its community guidelines “make it clear that we do not allow harmful misinformation, including medical misinformation, and we will remove it from the platform.”
Previously, people got medical advice from neighbors or tried to self-diagnose through Google search, said Dr. Anish Agarwal, an emergency physician in Philadelphia. Now, years into the pandemic, he is still getting patients who believe the “crazy” claims on social media that Covid vaccines will insert robots into their arms.
“We struggle with this every day,” said Dr. Agarwal, who teaches at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine and is associate director of Penn Medicine’s Center for Digital Health.
Online and offline discussions about the coronavirus are constantly changing, with patients recently asking him questions about booster shots and the long Covid, Dr Agarwal said. He has a grant from the National Institutes of Health to study the Covid-related social media habits of different populations.
“Moving forward, understanding our behaviors and thoughts around Covid will likely also shed light on how individuals interact with other health information on social media, how we can actually use social media to fight misinformation,” he said.
Years of lies and rumors about Covid have had a contagion effect, damaging public acceptance of all vaccines, said Heidi J. Larson, director of the Vaccine Confidence Project at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine.
“Covid rumors aren’t going to go away – they’re going to be repurposed and they’re going to adapt,” she said. “We cannot remove this. No company can solve this problem.
Some efforts to slow the spread of misinformation about the virus have come up against First Amendment concerns.
A law that California passed several months ago, and set to take effect next month, would punish doctors for spreading false information about Covid vaccines. It already faces legal challenges from plaintiffs who describe the settlement as an unconstitutional violation of free speech. Tech companies such as Meta, Google and Twitter have faced lawsuits this year from people who have been excluded from Covid misinformation and say the companies have overstepped their content moderation efforts , while other lawsuits have accused the platforms of not doing enough to contain misleading narratives about the pandemic.
Dr. Graham Walker, an emergency physician in San Francisco, said rumors spreading online about the pandemic pushed him and many of his colleagues to social media to try to correct inaccuracies. He posted multiple Twitter threads with over a hundred evidence-packed tweets trying to debunk coronavirus misinformation.
But this year, he said he felt increasingly defeated by the onslaught of toxic content on a variety of medical issues. He quit Twitter after the company dropped its Covid misinformation policy.
“I started to think it wasn’t a winning battle,” he said. “It doesn’t look like a fair fight.”
Now, Dr. Walker said, he is watching a “triple epidemic” of Covid-19, RSV and influenza bombard the healthcare system, pushing waits in the emergency room in some hospitals from less than an hour to six hours. Misinformation about readily available treatments is at least partly to blame, he said.
“If we had a bigger increase in vaccinations with the newer vaccines, we would probably have a smaller number of seriously ill people with Covid, and that will certainly bring down the number of hospitalizations,” he said. . “Honestly, at this point, we’ll take all the bumps we can.”