HIFA Blog: Month in Review, Feb-Apr 2020 - Coronavirus and the cancer of misinformation

1 May, 2020

Quote of the month: “The cancer of misinformation continues to spread and metastasize... It is a pervasive and growing threat to global health, driven by increased connectivity and social media. It is not just coronavirus, it is a problem across all areas of health” (HIFA coordinator Neil Pakenham-Walsh, UK)

“Antibiotics are effective in treating the new coronavirus”. “Herbal remedies and other drugs can help treat the new virus”. “New coronavirus only affects older people”.

The above three statements are examples of the “cancer of misinformation”, described in our Quote of the Month. They have since been debunked by WHO but the damage from these and other rumours, and the effectiveness of efforts to debunk them, remains unknown. This underlines why stakeholders must work together to achieve the HIFA Vision: “a world where every person worldwide will have access to the reliable healthcare information they need to protect their own health and the health of others” - and where every person is protected from misinformation.

Social media is freely available, easy to use, and provides a platform to communicate with an ever-growing global audience. It could therefore play a central role in the global dissemination of accurate health information and advice, particularly during health emergencies. Yet the experiences of HIFA members, shared during an ongoing HIFA forum discussion on coronavirus, now into its fourth month, show that social media platforms are being used to convey information that is not only false, but also highly dangerous.

“It is being misused time and again to spread conspiracy theories and other forms of misinformation about the COVID-19”. This was how Stuti Chakraborty (HIFA member, India) portrayed the role of social media in the pandemic. “Misinformation has played a major role in worsening the situation across the world”, she told HIFA members, “creating a state of widespread panic.” A study shared by Julie Reza (HIFA Steering Group member, UK) reported how misinformation had influenced human behaviour. "People who believed them [misinformation] were less likely to behave in a way that would protect themselves and others, such as washing their hands frequently and keeping away from other people if they have any symptoms."

Several HIFA members described first-hand experiences of the sharing of misinformation. Amelia Abdelrazik (HIFA Member, USA) is part of a large WhatsApp group of family members. "Someone in my family shared a message purportedly from a Stanford University doctor about how we can protect ourselves from COVID-19. Some of the claims seemed strange to me, so I looked it up. Right away, I found multiple sites talking about the false advice within this post. Here is one such site" She emphasised the need for caution: “Posts that seem that they come from a reputable source are particularly insidious. We are so quick to share something without fact checking first”..

Neil Pakenham-Walsh shared a similar story where the false information came from a family member with a PhD, highlighting the fact that misinformation can be inadvertently spread by those who are highly educated.

For Juliet Shenge (HIFA member, Nigeria), the danger of misinformation cannot be underestimated. “Honestly, I am worried about the wave of misinformation and myths circulating more than the virus itself”, she told the HIFA forum. “This is a wake up call for Africa”. An article shared by Chris Zielinski (HIFA Steering Group member, UK) provided a snapshot of the huge challenges faced by Juliet’s home country, Nigeria. “False information in Nigeria is undermining medical advice, proffering fake cures, inciting panic and being used for political point-scoring."

Healthcare Information for All is working to eradicate “the cancer of misinformation”. To achieve that goal, we need your support. There are a number of ways in which you can help. Contact neil@hifa.org and let’s build a future where no one is dying for lack of reliable healthcare knowledge.

Metrics: In February, March and April 2020 HIFA (English) exchanged 842 messages from 241 contributors in 44 countries (Australia, Bangladesh, Belgium, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Canada, China, Croatia, DRCongo, Egypt, France, Germany, Honduras, India, Italy, Jamaica, Japan, Jordan, Kenya, Lebanon, Malawi, Nepal, Netherlands, Nigeria, Niue, Norway, Pakistan, Philippines, Romania, Russia, Senegal, Singapore, South Africa, Spain, Sudan, Switzerland, Tanzania, Tunisia, Uganda, United Arab Emirates, UK, USA, Zambia, Zimbabwe). Our top contributors were Joseph Ana, Nigeria (58), Najeeb Al-Shorbaji, Jordan (31), and Chris Zielinski, UK (25), Tusharkanti Dey, India (19), Tatjana Kobb, China (11), and Shabina Hussain, USA (10). Thank you all for sharing your views and your experience.

Martin Carroll was previously Head of the International Department at the British Medical Association, London UK, and has worked on issues affecting health in LMICs since 2003. He represented the BMA on the HIFA Steering Group from 2008-16 and is now an independent HIFA Steering Group member.   Martin is a member of three HIFA working groups: Multilingualism, Evaluating the Impact of Healthcare Information, and Social Media. He is also the HIFA blogger. Twitter: @MMCarroll 

Picture credit: CDC/Alissa Eckert, MS; Dan Higgins, MAM. Thanks to Wikipedia