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What Contributes To COVID-19 Misinformation?

Pixabay user Gerd Altmann

Misinformation about COVID-19 has spread almost as much as the disease itself – and sometimes, faster. Why is this the case? 

When it emerged earlier this year, the world had limited knowledge of the coronavirus and its full effects. Doctors and researchers worked to better understand the disease, but countless rumors also circulated. Peter Adams with the News Literacy Project explained.

“Like self-test, if you can hold your breath for ten seconds you don’t have it, that’s entirely false," he said. "Or if you gargle with water, you can wash the virus out of your throat. That’s false. So those kinds of false claims circulated quite a bit.” 

These small claims can escalate to much larger concerns when somebody gets sick, including how they seek treatment. That’s what Dr. Brian Poustinchian, Hospitalist Medical Director at Delnor Hospital, is seeing.

“Some people who are waiting and delaying routine care or even urgent care," he said, "are presenting with more advanced problems that perhaps may have even been normally the case pre-COVID."

Expert information on COVID-19 may appear sporadic and contradictory. This, said Poustinchian, is a factor of time.

“Typically you’ve got months to years to gather data," he said, "and with COVID you’ve kind of been operating on a much much smaller timeframe to determine what’s best, what works for patients, what may not be as effective.” 

Confusion can also come from a misunderstanding of how scientific research is done. Nicole LaDue is a professor at Northern Illinois University whose work includes training future science teachers. She said issues can arise when people are presented with news reports of studies that contradict each other.

“When there’s new findings," she said, "that is often picked up because it’s exciting, but in the scientific community you would find that if there’s one finding that’s quite unusual, that the rest of the scientific community would be pretty skeptical of that finding.” 

Ladue emphasized that science is an iterative process. Skepticism in this case prompts further study.

“They might change a particular variable," she said, "and they might find 'you know, that finding, while it was true, when we put it into this new context, we find out more information that contextualizes that first finding.'” 

But even with a proper understanding of research, there is still the matter of people trusting the information that they find. Adams with the News Literacy Project said over the past decade, people have been consuming a greater proportion of opinion content.

“That has caused people to just echo the talking points that they’re hearing all day, every day," he said, "and people are really failing to distinguish between opinion journalism and straight news reporting.” 

That’s not to say opinion journalism doesn’t have a role.

“People who know subjects very well, who engage in honest debate, who take positions that are well reasoned and thoughtful; that plays a role in the national conversation," Adams said. "But we still need a shared set of facts about which to have a debate.” 

Ladue said this should also be taken into account when judging suggested courses of action regarding COVID-19.

"There are a lot of economic and personal consequences to following the guidelines presented to us by scientists," she said,  "and when we group those things together, that makes people point to scientists that they’re the problem. They’re not the problem. The data’s the data. What we choose to do with that data is a different question.” 

Ultimately, a large part of combating disinformation comes down to distinguishing opinion versus fact. Ladue says this can depend on the nature of the research behind a report.

“I look at who’s done the study," she said. "Is that study funded by a company that’s profiting off the results? I look at did that finding have a control group or a comparison group? So did they vary a variable?”

It can also depend on how information is presented.

“Trustworthy information doesn’t actually ask you to trust it, said Adams. "It shows you why you should.” 

Poustinchian at Northwestern Medicine said patient knowledge is improving.

“Unfortunately, some people just don’t know how they were exposed but when they may have acquired them," he said. "But we’ve seen varying spectrums, from very little knowledge of anything about COVID-19 to people who do a really good job reading up on it.” 

And the hope is that greater scientific and media literacy can help fight the flow of misinformation.