Coronavirus (837) An exploration of how fake news is taking over social media and putting public health at risk

19 July, 2020

Dear HIFA colleagues,

'Fake news is taking over social media and putting public health at risk. The scale of the crisis and ubiquity of the misleading information demand that scientists, health information professionals and journalists see it as their professional responsibility to help the general public identify fake news stories. They must do their utmost to ensure that valid, evidence based information is disseminated, using both social media and traditional media – print, radio and television.' This is the conclusion of a new paper in Health Information and Libraries Journal. Citation, abstract, extracts and comment from me below.

CITATION: Salman Bin Naeem, Rubina Bhatti, Aqsa Khan. An exploration of how fake news is taking over social media and putting public health at risk

Health Info Libr J 2020 Jul 12. doi: 10.1111/hir.12320.

ABSTRACT

'[...] There is much concern during this pandemic about the spread of misleading or inaccurate information. This article reports on a small study which attempted to identify the types and sources of COVID-19 misinformation. The authors identified and analysed 1225 pieces of COVID-19 fake news stories taken from fact-checkers, myth-busters and COVID-19 dashboards. The study is significant given the concern raised by the WHO Director-General that 'we are not just fighting the pandemic, we are also fighting infodemic'. The study concludes that the COVID-19 infodemic is full of false claims, half backed conspiracy theories and pseudoscientific therapies, regarding the diagnosis, treatment, prevention, origin and spread of the virus. Fake news is pervasive in social media, putting public health at risk. The scale of the crisis and ubiquity of the misleading information require that scientists, health information professionals and journalists exercise their professional responsibility to help the general public identify fake news stories. They should ensure that accurate information is published and disseminated.'

EXTRACTS

The paper includes an analysis of the infodemic over time (as one would expect, there is a bell-shaped curve, with an initial rise follwed by a fall) and by terms that tend to occur together (eg President Donald Trump, Wuhan, lab).

Also, the authors advocate to 'Stop tolerating pseudoscience health practices: The damages that pseudoscience health practices have done for public health are far from negligible. In the current crises, pseudoscience health therapies and advice are proliferating and pose a threat to public health. Caulfield (2020) said that we must stop tolerating and legitimising health pseudoscience, particularly during this pandemic. Instead, we must trust and rely on science.’

'There is a need for governments to deliver awareness messages to the general public highlighting the risk of pseudoscience health therapies and the threat they pose to the world’s collective efforts to curtail the virus.'

COMMENT (NPW)

The paper says there is a need to 'Train people how to identify and recognise fake news stories... especially the young, about the nature of social media and how to use it effectively and safely if we are to win the war against fake news.' In my view, it is more important and more feasible to provide tools that will help people immediately differentiate. One such tool is the HoN Code, but this remains a method that is largely unknown to the public. Another is to include signposts and warnings on search engines such as Google, as is now being done for (I believe) the first time after consultation with WHO. Meanwhile, false and dangerous misinformation continue to be spread across social media without barriers. The trends suggest that future infodemics will be even worse than the current one. Urgent action is needed, and I believe such action should be focused more on the way that information is disseminated and signposted, and less on relying on high levels of personal health literacy (as we have seen on HIFA, even post-doctorate scientists are vulnerable to misinformation - it is simply not feasible to rely on personal health literacy across populations).

Best wishes, Neil

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HIFA profile: Neil Pakenham-Walsh is coordinator of the HIFA global health campaign (Healthcare Information For All - www.hifa.org ), a global community with more than 20,000 members in 180 countries, interacting on six global forums in four languages in collaboration with WHO. Twitter: @hifa_org FB: facebook.com/HIFAdotORG neil@hifa.org