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COVID-19, a Pandemic Accompanied by Infodemia

By : Estefanía Fajardo
Periodista científica de Global Rheumatology by PANLAR.



12 June, 2020

https://doi.org/10.46856/grp.26.e029

"Fake news usually appeal to alleged interesting, alarming, or shocking news, which favors them to spread 10% faster than authentic news and allows them to do it with great virulence and speed. By identifying fake news and knowing how to counteract it with evidence-based analysis and data is the challenge nowadays, when the world is updated through the internet and, in some cases, may be saturated with information and misinformation. "

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This is an open-access article distributed by the terms of the Creative Common Attribution License (CC-BY NC-4). The use, distribution or reproduction in other forms is permitted, provided the original author(a) and the copyright owner(s) are credited and that the original publication in this journal is cited, in accordance with accepted academic practice. No use, distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not comply with this terms.

Fake news are reaching a notorious increase, becoming a real public health problem. Misinformation, poor information or inappropriate information along with an excess of data, news, among others, creates a scenario that must be known by healthcare professionals in order to properly fight them with reliable and verified data. 

Reviewing PubMed, we were able to find 256 publications under the “Fake News” search, one of them, a meta-analysis, found 57 articles for full text analysis. There are topics that seem to be more affected by fake news such as vaccines and infectious diseases like the epidemics of Ebola and Zika, but also topics like cancer, tobacco, among others (1). The current COVID-19 pandemic seems to be taking fake news to a new level. 

It is necessary to encourage certain subjects and courses in the professional formation such as critical thinking and improve the reading and language knowledge capacities of the new media and platforms so our students are able to learn and analyze the scientific and pseudo-scientific information that they may be receiving and that our patients are currently exposed to. Fake news should be a high interest study topic as well as basic knowledge for healthcare professionals.  

This is why it is necessary to properly know the context in which the fake news are being developed, what are the main motivations behind the same, the psychological and social context in which they are being developed, and of course, how to recognize them in order to neutralize them.  

In this article we want to review the most relevant aspects on this social phenomenon that, even though it has always existed in many ways, but with the generalized and global use of social networks it has increased on the XXI century. What are fake news? How can they be recognized? What global actions are being done to properly fight them? These are some of the topics that we are going to review. 

 

FAKE NEWS OR UNTRUE NEWS

Vosoughi et al. (1) establish that these contents have several elements in common: hazardous intention, usually with economic or political origin; the subject matter is transversal (fake news are documented in the political, medical, economic, and historic fields, among others); they usually appeal to alleged interesting, alarming, or shocking news, which favors them to spread 10% faster than authentic news and allows them to do it with great virulence and speed.  

The same study estimates that analyzed fake news were more innovative than the real ones, which suggests that people have more probabilities to share new information. “while fake stories inspired fear, disdain and surprise in the answers, true stories inspired anticipation, sadness, joy, and trust”. 

The research determined that the false story spread further, quicker, deeper, and broader than the true one in all of the information categories, “and the effects were more notorious for fake political news than fake news regarding terrorism, natural disasters, science, urban legends, or financial information”. 

The International Center for Journalists published a document called A Brief Guide of the History of Fake News and Misinformation. On the introduction it says: “Misinformation and propaganda have been characteristics of human communication at least from the Roman times, when Marco Antonio met Cleopatra. Octavio threw a propaganda campaign against Marco Antonio in order to ruin his reputation. Said campaign was made up by short phrases that were engraved on coins, almost like an ancient tweet”. 

The Ethical Journalism Network (EJN) presents the following definition for fake or misleading information: “all information that is deliberately manufactured and published to deceive and induce third parties to believe false data or to question verifiable facts” (2). 

The International Journalist Federation assures that social networks allow users to be both producers and consumers of contents at the same time “and that they have enabled the dissemination of deceitful, false, or fabricated content. With this, a vicious circuit is generated, and a fake news is replicated millions of times in a matter of seconds” (3). 

The organization, which represents 600.000 communicators in the world, explains that the quick dissemination of these fake news happens because by moving to a form of networking communication, unlike broadcasting, the exchange of messages on a network allows users not only to be consumers, but also producers of speeches that spread and circulate through the network and that in many cases turn out to be fake. “and secondly, these platforms use an algorithm that distributes the most relevant content for each user, making the information that each person receives filtered and conditioned”. 

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, General Director of the WHO, and Alex Ng, Vice-president of Tencent Healthcare and a member of the technical consulting group for digital health of the WHO, published a document regarding the infodemic related to the COVID-19 pandemic that is currently happening in the world (4). This infodemic, they assure, is creating obstacles to the measures for containing the outbreak, “spreading panic and confusion in an unnecessary way generating a breach at the moment in which we need to be more solidary and collaborative in order to save lives and put an end to this sanitary crisis”. “Internet misinformation affects many areas, from politics to childcare, and it is one of the biggest problems of our time. In relation to the current public health emergency, disinformation may hinder the fight against the disease and its containment, with consequences that may endanger human life”, the two experts stress. 

 

POST TRUTH  

The term “post-truth” was designated by the Oxford dictionary as the word of the year in 2016. It refers to those “circumstances in which objective facts have less influence on the formation of public opinion, than the appeal towards emotions and personal beliefs”. 

A study developed by the Global Cybersecurity company Kaspersky (5), in conjunction with the market research consultancy CORPA determined that on average, 70% of Latin Americans do not know how to detect or are not sure of recognizing a false news item on the internet from a real one. This study also analyzes that those who least manage to identify fake news are Peruvians, with 79%, followed by Colombians (73%) and Chileans (70%). Further behind are the Argentinians and Mexicans, with 66%, and finally Brazilians, with 62%. The research also showed that 16% of the consulted participants are completely unaware of the “fake news” concept. 47% of the Peruvians say that they do not know what it refers to while only 2% of the Brazilians are unaware of the term.

“There is much more misinformation than what we are used to having. All of this detracts from our ability to find constructive solutions”, says Amesh Adalja, MD and principal researcher at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security (6-8). This researcher says that in the case of SARS-CoV-2 he spends many hours trying to convince people that the virus did not originate in a laboratory or that pointing a hair dryer at their nose will not save them from the new coronavirus. “The entire pandemic has been contaminated with misinformation”, he says in a text he published in Hopkins Bloomberg Public Health Magazine (8). 

In this same article Tara Kirk Sell (9), also a main researcher of this center, divides the erroneous information into different categories:

  • False Cures: Social media influencers have been promoting a “miracle mineral supplement” to cure the coronavirus that actually contains dilute chlorine, a known toxin.
  • Conspiracies: Allegations that the virus may have originated in a bioweapons lab in several countries have surfaced on Twitter, despite conclusive evidence from scientists that SARS-CoV-2 has a natural origin. 
  • Scapegoat: Some media and politicians continue to refer to SARS-CoV-2 as the “Chinese virus” or “Chinese Disease”.
  • Disinformation about the disease: In the early days of the pandemic, some politicians and intelligence officials dismissed COVID-19 as “only a flu”, despite data from Wuhan, China, showing otherwise. 

 

GLOBAL ACTIONS DURING THE PANDEMIC

Just as there is a first line to confront COVID-19 in the clinical environment, there is also a first line of defense on the virtual environment: social networks. These are the ones that serve as a bridge for fake news to spread, even faster than the transmission of the virus itself. 

Google, Facebook, Instagram, and the currently popular among the young crowd, Tik Tok, make the web a breeding ground for false information, propagators of messages loaded with emoticons, capital letters, bold letters and countless resources to be convincing and to manage to permeate society. However, being aware of what they represent in times of pandemic and connectivity, they decided to take action on each of these platforms. Google, for example, launched an SOS Alert with the WHO so that the information on the coronavirus in their search engine would be from the Organization in the first instance, all with real time updates and monitoring of the pandemic (10). YouTube (11), which is owned by Google, activated a banner on every video played by its users in order to find official WHO information. In addition to this, the search function on Facebook (12), shows as a first result the WHO and the site of the health authority of your country to consult information on the progress of the virus.  

 

FIGHTING INFODEMICS 

One third of Latin Americans only use social networks to inform themselves on a daily basis and only 17% do so through traditional media websites. 

The good news amidst the false news, says Susan Krenn (13), executive director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Communication Programs (14), is that there are potential solutions to the infodemic. Making “flattening the curve” images popular has worked in the sense that they generate recall and are easy to share. “combining truth with emotional appeal can also help people change their minds more easily”, says Krenn. 

Underestimating the capacity of these fake news is also an important issue. Only 2% of Latin Americans believe that fake news is just a game and does not harm anyone, while the vast majority think the opposite and claim that fake news is harmful or could eventually become so. The study of the security firm highlights that 72% “even affirms that they turn viral because someone seeks to cause harm or get something in return”. 

“However, only 46% of the respondents question from time to time or simply do not question What they rea don the web, being again the Peruvian citizens who stand out in this aspect, with 58%. They are followed by the Colombians with 47%, and Chileans, Argentinians, Mexicans, and Brazilians, with 42%”, the analysts affirm.   

Vosoughi (1) notes that fake news spreads more than the truth because humans, not robots, are more likely to spread it. Therefore, it is important to know the structure of these fake news in order to fight them from scientific knowledge.  

 

FACT CHECKING 

According to the UNESCO in a report for journalists regarding fake news, “Fact-Checking” is not rocket science. It is to perform a scrupulous analysis driven by a basic question: “how do we know that?” at the same time, this check does not mean spell-checking (15). In general terms, fact-checking consists of three phases, according to the information collected by the UNESCO (16): 

1. Find verifiable factual claims by reviewing legislative records, media, and social networks. This process includes determining which important public claims (a) can be verified and (b) should be verified. 

2. Find the facts by seeking the best available evidence about the claim at hand. 

3. Correct the record by evaluating the claim in light of the evidence, usually on a truthfulness scale. 

It is not simply by virtue of its “falsehood” that something becomes fake news, “but also through the character of its circulation, including the speed, scale, and nature of sharing. In particular, recent concerns about fake news are directly related to the threat of its accelerated circulation on the web and online platforms. Therefore, many attempts to fight fake news focus on trending material or that is gaining great traction or commitment online” says an analysis developed by Nieman journalism Lab (17). For their part, Gordon et al (18), from Yale University, published an analysis in which they claim that the extent and impact of repetition on the beliefs of this fake news is greater than previously assumed. “these observations indicate that, although extreme implausibility is a limiting condition of the illusionary truth effect, only a small degree of potential plausibility is sufficient for repetition to increase perceived accuracy. As a result, the extent and impact of repetition on beliefs is greater than what was previously assumed” they say. 

Imke Henkel of Lincoln University suggests that it is not enough to respond with fact-checking. “we need to look at the storytelling tools (…) the falsehood in news reports is not limited to the misrepresentation of facts. The distortion of the news becomes relevant through its impact, which in turn depends on how the story is told”, this following an analysis of “Euromitos”, false stories of the European Union analyzed by this researcher. She suggests a few simple facts to verify: 

  • Verify the source
  • Check the date
  • Consult experts or bibliography 
  • Analyze the author and the publishing portal 
  • Don’t get into arguments with trolls
  • Do not use qualifiers to demean others
  • The discourse must be supported by references 
  • Avoid, as much as possible, the use of technicalities 

 

CONCLUSIONS 

In the post-truth era, it seems that we would be learning to live with fake news the same way we learn to live with the virus. It is necessary to take decisive actions against this news, the most important being to educate ourselves and people to recognize it. The International Data Verification Network is a unit of the Poynter institute dedicated to bringing together data verifies from around the world. They have performed more than 5 thousand verifications on coronavirus issues (19). 

It is very insightful to see Dr. Forero’s column in this journal (29) on this subject where he notes that the area of Rheumatology is a frequent recipient of fake news without being able to find an academic reference of the specialty in this regard. A strong reason to write this article and a motivation to invite you to pay more attention, teach and stimulate “prescription” during consultation from reliable, verifiable, and appropriate sources of information so as not to leave our patients adrift in a sea of possible “interesting” and more harmful fake news. 

 

 REFERENCES

  1. Vosoughi, Soroush & Roy, Deb & Aral, Sinan. (2018). The spread of true and false news online. Science. 359. 1146-1151. 10.1126/science.aap9559.  
  2. Wide Angle False Information: The Journalist Opinion. Unesco 2017. Available on: https://es.unesco.org/courier/july-september-2017/informacion-falsa-opinion-periodistas
  3. What are Fake News? Guide to fight misinformation in the Post-Truth era https://www.ifj.org/fileadmin/user_upload/Fake_News_-_FIP_AmLat.pdf
  4. Ghebreyesus T, Ng A. Misinformation in Medicine: Let’s fight the “infodemia”. El País 2020. Available on: https://elpais.com/sociedad/2020/02/18/actualidad/1582053544_191857.html
  5. Diazgranados H. 70% of Latin Americans do not know how to detect fake news Kasperky 2020. Available on: https://latam.kaspersky.com/blog/70-de-los-latinoamericanos-desconoce-como-detectar-una-fake-news/17015
  6. Adalja A. Profile. Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. 2020. Available on: https://www.jhsph.edu/faculty/directory/profile/3528/amesh-adalja
  7. Arnold C. Countering the Infodemic. JHUSPH. 2020. Available on: https://magazine.jhsph.edu/2020/countering-infodemic
  8. Center of Health Security. JHUSPH. 2020. Available on: https://www.centerforhealthsecurity.org/
  9. Sell TK. Professional Profile. JHUSPH. 2020. Available on: https://www.centerforhealthsecurity.org/our-people/sell/
  10. Coronavirus. Google Search. 2020. Available on: https://www.google.com/search?sxsrf=ACYBGNRxxQd4SYfzlsqbokajbRhXH_A3tA:1581284991061&ei=f35AXs6zA_vWmwWpnqOIDA&q=coronavirus&oq=coron&gs_l=psy-ab.1.2.35i39l3j0i131j0l6.1898.2464..4536...0.4..0.127.475.4j1......0....1..gws-wiz.......0i71j0i3.jBqZZKshi3o
  11. Maternson C. Coronavirus Now a Pandemic, Yet Mainstream Press Criminally Silent. Available on: https://www.peakprosperity.com/coronavirus/ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pTWZPGzvJIo&fbclid=IwAR2mdqeuqx0kelAaMbnqqcsVL8GOJbDqOTxgVIxEwWWpuTB95AF3DaSLpZU
  12. COVID-19 Information center. Facebook. 2020: Available:  https://www.facebook.com/search/top/?q=coronavirus%20update&epa=SERP_TAB
  13. Susan Krenn. Profile. JHU. 2020. Available on: https://ccp.jhu.edu/employee/susan-krenn-2/
  14. Center For Communication Programs. JHU. 2020. Available on: https://ccp.jhu.edu/
  15. Journalism, Fake News & Disinformation. UNESCO. 2018. Available on: https://en.unesco.org/sites/default/files/journalism_fake_news_disinformation_print_friendly_0.pdf
  16. Gray J, Bounegru L, Venturini T. What does fake news tell us about life in the digital age? Not what you might expect.NL2017. Available on: https://www.niemanlab.org/2017/04/what-does-fake-news-tell-us-about-life-in-the-digital-age-not-what-you-might-expect/
  17. Pennycook G, Cannon TD, Rand DG. Prior exposure increases perceived accuracy of fake news. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General 2018; 147(12):1865-80. Available on: DOI: 10.1037/xge0000465
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    https://www.poynter.org/fact-checking/2020/783880/
  20. Forero Elias. In times of Crisis. Global Rheum
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