The COVID-19 pandemic was not only a pandemic of a virus, but also a pandemic of misinformation and disinformation. During the year 2020, it was not uncommon to log onto social media sites or sit down for the nightly news and hear many competing headlines, advice, and opinions. Being in the age of social media has been a blessing and a curse for the medical and science communities and the COVID-19 pandemic serves as the perfect case study to show how much the abundance of false information can harm not only individuals, but societies as a whole.
The confusion around the ease of the spread of mis-and dis-information is widespread. Even finding the differences between the two types of false information can be daunting; especially considering that the two terms are more often than not used interchangeably. Misinformation is simply just information that is not true and does not necessarily intend to mislead. Disinformation, on the other hand “is intentionally false, intending to deceive the recipient.” The fact that the difference between misinformation and disinformation is not immediately intuitive is a problem in and of itself, but the distinction between the two is incredibly important when discussing the spread of false information on social media and among peers. Politics, healthcare, and economics are already complicated and convoluted games. The jargon and acronyms used vary from industry to industry and are not designed for the general public to understand. Additionally, the chasm in communication between health professionals and patients is greater than ever before. To that point, before the pandemic, there was never an immediate need for doctors and scientists to add social media literacy to their list of skills.
Social media is not inherently bad. Not in the slightest. However, providing a platform for anyone with internet access to post, share, and comment almost anything is surely a recipe for chaos in times when the absolute truth needs to be spread further and faster than any competing falsehoods. Applications like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Tik Tok, and others are walking a fine line between censorship and allowing total free speech. The responsibility of “gatekeeping” lying solely on corporations definitely contributes to the spread of misinformation and disinformation. This line comes with numerous legal hoops to jump through and constant scrutiny towards their policies and regulations regarding what can and cannot be posted on their sites.With newspapers slowly transitioning from print media to online postings, it would not be even slightly surprising if the majority of Americans found out about the threat of COVID-19 via social media or news outlets (online, on TV, or in print). In this way, the internet allowed for essential updates and regulations to be conveyed in a timely manner while causes and solutions remained uncertain. In fact, studies show that social media use increases in times of crisis and perceived disaster and the Pew Research Center states that 90% of Americans claim that the internet has been essential during the pandemic.
This public tendency served as a catalyst for information, true or false, to spread like wildfire. Questions like: “What is COVID-19? How is it spread? Is it deadly? Do I need to wear a mask?” and others like it circled the internet and were answered by news articles, facebook groups, and to the best of their ability, scientists (though they often were lost in the sea of the internet). With the sheer amount of content available one would think that it does the researcher a favor; yet, despite all of the opinion and factual pieces seemingly at our fingertips, we still fell prey to believing and even seeking out misinformation and disinformation largely due to the fact that when facing an intimidating amount of content, we seek those we trust.
So what can we do about it? This question comes up again and again with, seemingly, no answer. Some may say that it is the responsibility of companies like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter to regulate false content. Others claim that it is up to each individual to strive to seek out truthful content. The reality is, the challenge of combating misinformation and disinformation requires cooperation between all parties involved. Firstly, individuals should be fact checking the things they share online and misinformation would not be shared in the first place. Additionally, disinformation should not be created and malicious intent should be nowhere involved when it comes to educating the public. On an individual level, each person seeking information on a topic, especially one as serious and all encompassing as COVID-19, should check multiple sources and make informed choices about what information you choose to share on social media and within communities. Arguably, major corporations have the largest responsibility in combating false information by having some level of regulation when it comes to medical and political news. Requiring articles posted to have clear warnings for opinion versus factual pieces would be a great start. In addition to all of this, it is becoming increasingly important for the medical community to utilize social media to its fullest potential in order to speak directly to the public about guidelines, warnings, and recommendations.
All in all, there are things that can feasibly be done about misinformation and disinformation. The idea of taking on the entire internet and preventing false information from being shared seems daunting and impossible but, if taken one piece at a time and tackled in a unified way, this problem is improvable. In an advisory released by the United States Surgeon General, three suggestions are posed to individuals who want to help: “Learn how to identify and avoid sharing health misinformation, address health misinformation in your community, and engage with your friends and family on the problem of health misinformation.” If careful steps are taken by all communities involved, misinformation and disinformation will be easily identifiable and societies can learn how important it is to let the actual truth be heard.