The Infodemic in the COVID-19 Pandemic
Updated: Jul 29
For over a year, the world has been plagued by a pandemic, when a disease spreads to numerous countries. In particular, due to COVID-19. This resulted in people from all over the world staying home more than ever before and an increased dependency on technology, which is where a majority of people get their information about the COVID-19 pandemic. However, obtaining information from the internet can be extremely dangerous on how we interpret the pandemic. Specifically, it can be difficult to distinguish between facts, opinions, and false information. Part of this ‘infodemic’ consists of fake news which, according to the World Economic Forum, is a major threat in today's society, as this type of information circulates fast and is often inaccurate and misleading . COVID-19 is not only a pandemic—it is an infodemic.
What is an infodemic? According to the World Health Organization, it “is an overabundance of information, both online and offline. It includes deliberate attempts to disseminate wrong information to undermine the public health response and advance alternative agendas of groups or individuals” . This can consist of conspiracy theories, rumors, and myths. Reports say that fake news has spread quickly due to social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and AOL. In the United States specifically, researchers from Princeton University tracked how 3000 Americans used their internet near the 2016 presidential election. They discovered “Facebook to be the referrer site for untrustworthy news sources over 15% of the time. By contrast, Facebook referred users to authoritative news sites only 6% of the time” . This is a terrifying statistic; many people are impacted by advertisements on social media and most of the time the information that is given appears authentic. On top of this, people are prone to look at news that confirms their pre-existing values or beliefs. This means that people want to read news sources with untrustworthy information that already have bias.
COVID-19 has been explicitly targeted by fake news sites and has replicated similarly to the spread of fake news during the Ebola epidemic and the Zika outbreak. There have been many conspiracies about the main causes of COVID-19 and cures which have not been professionally verified. For example, news spread that some cures consisted of “rinsing one’s mouth with salty water, eating oregano, or even drinking bleach. Other types of misleading information are contributing to the dissemination of myths, such as pointing at the consumption of ‘bat soup’ as the cause of the infection, or conspiracies, such as the virus being engineered by the US”(Pulido 1) . There have also been conspiracy theories about vaccines causing COVID-19. This type of information is particularly harmful because it can unconsciously (or consciously) foster extremist attitudes, threaten somebody’s life if they try these cures, and convey racist attitudes. It also limits how the government can help a population because people in the community will not cooperate. A specific example is the anti-vaccine movement making claims that the COVID-19 vaccines that are currently available (Pfizer, Moderna, Johnson & Johnson, and AstraZeneca) cause deaths even though scientists have not found any correlation between any of the COVID-19 vaccines and death.
Nevertheless, there are some positives to an ‘infodemic’. One of them being the circulation of facts about COVID-19. Many of us have heard the phrase “wear a mask and social distance!”, which has spread to many social media platforms to encourage people to stay safe. Additionally, many social media platforms have given professional-verified links to vaccine information to protect people against COVID-19. These precautions have saved people’s lives and major platforms, specifically Youtube and Instagram, have advocated this message. But, that still does not change the fact that people on those platforms that have large followings can still spread the message of false information.
So how can we stop the spread of false information? The World Health Organization (WHO), an organization that has been at the forefront of information about COVID-19, has dedicated an entire section on myth-busting common rumors and conspiracy theories about COVID-19 here . Secondly, you should always check the author of an article (but, remember that some professionals have bias and a degree does not mean that person can not spread fake news). Thirdly, check if there is support for that article. Do they cite official sources? Does it support that article? Lastly, always check your own biases which is a difficult thing to do . But, remember that your beliefs cannot always be justified and to stop the spread of fake news we need to all put in the work to do so. In total, there is so much information during the COVID-19 pandemic and there is much more to come. We need to be prepared to fight false information to secure our democracy and save lives.
 RIMCIS - International and Multidisciplinary Journal of Social Sciences. “False news around COVID-19 circulated less on Sina Weibo than on Twitter. How to overcome false information?” hipatiapress.com, July 2020, https://hipatiapress.com/hpjournals/index.php/rimcis/article/view/5386. Accessed 11 April 2021.
 World Health Organization. “Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) advice for the public: Mythbusters.” www.who.int, 26 March 2021, https://www.who.int/emergencies/diseases/novel-coronavirus-2019/advice-for-public/myth-busters. Accessed 11 April 2021.
 Forbes, and Mark Travers. “Facebook Spreads Fake News Faster Than Any Other Social Website, According To New Research.” www.forbes.com, 21 March 2020, https://www.forbes.com/sites/traversmark/2020/03/21/facebook-spreads-fake-news-faster-than-any-other-social-website-according-to-new-research/?sh=4cac96c26e1a. Accessed 11 April 2021.
 Saje Journals, and Cristina M. Pulido. “COVID-19 infodemic: More retweets for science-based information on coronavirus than for false information.” journals.sagepub.com, 15 April 2020, https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0268580920914755. Accessed 11 April 2021.
 World Health Organization. “Managing the COVID-19 infodemic: Promoting healthy behaviours and mitigating the harm from misinformation and disinformation.” www.who.int, 23 September 2020, https://www.who.int/news/item/23-09-2020-managing-the-covid-19-infodemic-promoting-healthy-behaviours-and-mitigating-the-harm-from-misinformation-and-disinformation#:~:text=An%20infodemic%20is%20an%20overabundance,will%20continue%20to%20thrive. Accessed 11 April 2021.
 Kiely, Eugene, and Lori Robertson. “How to Spot Fake News.” www.factcheck.org, 18 November 2016, https://www.factcheck.org/2016/11/how-to-spot-fake-news/. Accessed 11 April 2021.