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The Long View

What COVID-19 Misinformation Says About All of Us

Coronavirus myths reveal ourselves—our hopes, dreams, and fears. When someone shares such falsehoods, we should at least listen to their needs.

June 9, 2020

The Long View Communications Medicine

Misinformation about the current COVID-19 pandemic has been spreading at a dizzying pace in recent weeks. We see this proliferation on social media platforms and even in a burgeoning academic literature documenting COVID-19 misinformation—for example, recent work at the University of Oxford. That diffusion reflects at least in part our complicity as vectors. Indeed, every one of us is vulnerable to believing a wildly inaccurate headline about a “breakthrough” discovery related to coronavirus disease 2019, or COVID-19, at least momentarily. In part, this vulnerability is because the stakes are high for us all. It also reflects our human tendency to accept information at face value and only make sense of it as being true or false after the fact, as suggested by research on human information processing that I wrote about with Emily A. Thorson and Laura Sheble in the November–December 2017 issue.

But what has been lost in much of our hand-wringing about conspiracy theories and coronavirus myths has been the ways in which COVID-19 misinformation also reveals ourselves—our hopes and dreams and fears—and the reasons why we should at least listen to our neighbors' needs, even if we shouldn’t believe everything those neighbors share online.

iStock.com/zubada

One of the most striking aspects of misinformation about COVID-19 is the range and complexity of what can be found online and in interpersonal conversations. Just as we see with medical misinformation more broadly, there isn’t just one story about error and falsehood here. Misinformation about COVID-19 has varied tremendously in both topic and potential consequences. Considering the types of misinformation that have been appearing can suggest the ways in which people are suffering and struggling.

Basic misperceptions about COVID-19 are being tracked and debunked by agencies such as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which has dedicated a web page to stopping the spread of such rumors. But these falsehoods nonetheless point to fundamental concerns about personal vulnerability.

“Considering the types of misinformation that have been appearing can suggest the ways in which people are suffering and struggling.”

Consider myths circulating about easy remedies, such as drinking water to fend off coronavirus or even the utility of drinking bleach. Although medical professionals judge those beliefs as incorrect, what is also important to note is that such claims gain traction because they make people feel like they can keep themselves and their families safe.

What matters here is the natural human instinct toward preservation and health, even if the belief in question might lead to the opposite.

Despite being wrong, misperceptions tell us about how basic human needs can drive our attention and about the general lack of understanding of how science works as a process of inquiry. Both are quite understandable tendencies and yet both are overlooked when pundits focus on the gullibility of people or on malicious actors out in the world spreading this misinformation. People search for answers in the face of uncertainty and threat, and they draw on what they already know about the world in doing so.

Not all misinformation acceptance represents conspiratorial thinking. Some people have worried about the risks of everyday medicines, for example, such as ibuprofen, although those concerns have not been substantiated with peer-reviewed evidence after an initial letter in The Lancet. The popular spread of such claims can stem less from conspiratorial thinking, and more from the evolving and sometimes conflicting nature of scientific results themselves.

“People search for answers in the face of uncertainty and threat, and they draw on what they already know about the world in doing so.”

That is an underreported part of the COVID-19 story: Part of the problem is that many people don’t have a sense of how science on emerging infectious disease works, and how it can be acceptable and predictable for our best available information to sometimes change over time. Although pundits worry about Americans’ trust in science, survey evidence actually suggests that a majority of us trust at least some science professionals, such as clinicians, considerably and that most people express confidence in scientists generally to act in the public interest. What is less clear is whether most Americans’ comprehensively understand the research processes of science and scientific publication, a lack of understanding that can open the door to acceptance of sensational claims that do not have the backing of substantial empirical evidence. When headlines change from week to week and offer contradictory recommendations, people less familiar with the process of scientific research might, understandably, weigh each new headline equally and eventually also may question the competence or even motives of particular scientific institutions in the face of contradictions. We may have greater trust in science than is sometimes appreciated but many people also are not exclusively paying attention to rigorous scientific sources in their information consumption.

iStock.com/eternalcreative

In addition to more basic misperceptions about remedies, we also have seen evidence of conspiracy theory circulation that involves more complex storytelling. Even conspiratorial thinking, though, reflects people’s everyday struggles to just get by and make sense of the world. A colleague of mine—a respected communication scholar—recently wrote that under overwhelming personal circumstances even she once turned to problematic information online in search for answers. As people judge public policy, they might be tempted to weigh the evidence immediately in front of them more heavily than less accessible information in scientific journals or presentations in forums to which they aren’t invited.

How can we combat misinformation about COVID-19? One important step will be to not assume that we need to combat other people as we try to translate the rigorous results of evolving science on infectious disease for the neighbors who share this pandemic with us.

It is the inaccurate information that is the immediate problem, not necessarily your neighbor or coworker.

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