Story at a glance
- Health misinformation online was “already widespread” prior to the pandemic, new research suggests.
- The “infodemic” some say was brought on by the pandemic had been ravaging the internet long before COVID-19, and the spread of misinformation is really just an unfortunate feature of general online health information, according to the study.
- Researchers found that social media posts about COVID-19 were far less likely to contain false or misleading information than posts about other health topics.
The “infodemic” many say has been sparked by the COVID-19 pandemic is actually a general feature of online health information, new research suggests.
In a study of public social media posts shared in 2019 and 2020, at the outset of the pandemic, researchers found health misinformation had been spreading long before the first case of COVID-19 was detected.
“At the start of the pandemic, governments and organizations around the world started paying attention to the problem of health misinformation online,” David Broniatowski, the study’s lead author and associate director of the George Washington University’s Institute for Data, Democracy and Politics, said in a news release. “But when you compare it to what was going on before the pandemic, you start to see that health misinformation was already widespread.”
Broniatowski and his colleagues collected millions of Twitter and Facebook posts about various health topics shared between March and May of 2020, when information about the pandemic was spreading rapidly.
The researchers then compared those to health-related posts from the same time period in 2019, finding that health misinformation was “already widespread” prior to the pandemic.
“These findings suggest that the ‘infodemic’ of misinformation is a general feature of health information online, not one restricted to COVID-19,” Broniatowski said. “Clearly there is a lot of misinformation about COVID-19, but attempts to combat it might be better informed by comparison to the broader health misformation (sic) ecosystem.”
In their analysis, researchers focused on the credibility of the websites that each post shared.
Information considered “credible” came from sources like government and academic websites, as well as mainstream media. Information rooted in conspiracy theories or that came from state-sponsored sites known for spreading propaganda was deemed “not credible.”
Untrustworthy sources were nearly four times as likely to spread misinformation than credible sources, researchers found, but social media posts about COVID-19 were far less likely to contain false or misleading information than posts about other health topics.
“Misinformation has always been present, even at higher proportions before COVID-19 started. Many people knew this, which makes the ensuing misinformation spread during COVID-19 entirely predictable,” Mark Dredze, an associate professor at Johns Hopkins University and one of the study’s authors, said. “Had we been more proactive in fighting misinformation, we may not have been in an anti-vaccination crisis today.”
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