Author: Sara Habibipour
Throughout this whole pandemic, misinformation regarding COVID-19 has spread like a wildfire. In an age of increased communications due to social media and technology, it is extremely difficult to avoid medical misinformation, especially if you are not an educated professional. This article addresses how increased communications among people across the globe have led to a "pandemic of misinformation" amid the current coronavirus outbreak, and will even bust some of the commonly accepted, yet false claims regarding COVID-19.
Social Media as a Messenger for Misinformation
Social media platforms and digital devices have taken a leading role in our everyday lives, changing the way we receive information about news, health, politics, etc. Therefore, it is no surprise that misinformation about the COVID-19 pandemic is also being spread on these platforms.
We've all probably seen conspiracy theory posts about the illuminati, politicians, or famous YouTubers on Facebook, Twitter, and/or TikTok. But, in the case of a pandemic, the spread of non-fact based misinformation can be detrimental. In a public health crisis, we need everyone to be educated on the facts, not conspiracy theories. Conspiracy theories do not stop the spread of the coronavirus, however education on facts do (ex: wearing a mask, social distancing, etc.). But when misinformed posts are boosted through social media algorithms, millions, if not billions, of people worldwide get lied to. Unlike health officials, the general population is not scientifically literate; most people don't bother to read or understand publications in the New England Journal of Medicine, further leading to the spread of non-science based misinformation.
One especially troubling topic of misinformation has been medical advice. It is one thing to share a silly conspiracy theory about the illuminati, but in the case of COVID-19--a disease that has already affected over 20 million people worldwide to date--the spread of misinformation can be a case of life or death for not one individual, but the rest of the population and their close contacts. It is already a problem that people, especially those of younger generations, rely on the Internet to self-diagnose based on platforms such as WebMD or social media posts. With the current pandemic, people seem to be more convinced to stay away from the doctor's office due to fear of catching the virus, therefore they rely solely on what they see on social media to make medical decisions for themselves, even if it contains misinformation.
Health Becomes Politicized
Ah...where do I even start?
By putting it simply, the coronavirus pandemic has become more than a public health crisis. It's become an unending series of political arguments, a political strategy for current leaders to stay in power, and a catalyst for the further political polarization of the United States. And again, social media and increased communications among populations across the country and across the globe have aided in this.
From the very beginning of his campaign, President Trump has used social media platforms, particularly Twitter, to gain supporters and make announcements. But during this pandemic, social media and other news sources have really been a platform for him to spread misinformation. Whatever the intents are, whether you are pro-Trump or not, it doesn't really matter. All that matters is that President Trump, and many other politicians across the globe such as Brazil, are creating social media posts about the coronavirus that are scientifically inaccurate, leading their followers to believe their words and slow the improvement of conditions during this pandemic. Although I'll discuss some of these particular posts later in the article where I discuss coronavirus myths, there are too many accounts of misinformation from politicians for me to include in this article. I will link separate articles here and here.
Due to so many accounts of misinformation, Facebook and Twitter have had to actually delete these politicians' posts to prevent the spread of misinformation, leaving information regarding health in the hands of billionaires rather than public health professionals.
Coronavirus Myths Busted
Here are some of the main myths that have been spread across the globe due to increased connections through digital devices and social media, and relayed further through well-known politicians on other media sources. Note that there are obviously tons and tons of other myths out there on the Internet, but the five listed below are some of the most alarming and scientifically inaccurate myths that have also seemed to be readily accepted by the general population, unfortunately.
Although many of these myths started circulating a couple months ago through social media and news sources, people still believe in them. Like a pandemic, once misinformation is spread it is hard to contain. It's hard to talk people back into believing the truth, especially if the politicians or social media influencers they admire are promoting these myths.
Myth #1: Hydroxychloroquine is a valid treatment for COVID-19
Fact: Hydroxychloroquine is an approved drug for the treatment of malaria, lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, and other autoimmune diseases. Although the use of this drug is approved for the diseases listed above, it is not scientifically proven to be effective in the treatment of COVID-19. When this drug is used where it's not indicated, there can be many serious side effects. In March, the FDA announced emergency use of hydroxychloroquine, but warned that the drug can cause serious hearth rhythm problems in COVID patients and cautioned using them outside of the hopsital or critical trial. However in June, the FDA withdrew the drug, saying that it has shown no antiviral effects.
But why has this drug gained such prominence if it doesn't even work? This again has to do with the media and politicians. President Trump took the drug as a preventative measure back in March/April, saying "What do you have to lose?" Following the president's comments and increased media coverage on the topic, there was a sharp increase in reported prescriptions in the United States for the anti-malaria drug. From January to March of 2020, there were nearly no prescriptions of hydroxychloroquine. However, in early mid-March 2020, there was a dramatic increase in prescriptions according to insurance companies, topping 33,000 (view graph here). Soon after Trump's announcement, other politicians such as Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro took the drug, spreading the misinformation to other countries. There have been many accounts of people actually taking the drug without medical supervision, and then suffering from drug poisoning, when the whole time, the idea that hydroxychloroquine is a treatment for COVID-19 was a myth.
Myth #2: Wearing a Mask Causes Carbon Dioxide Intoxication/Oxygen Deficiency
Fact: Although wearing a face mask can be uncomfortable, they do not give you carbon dioxide intoxication. The fact that surgeons wear them for several hours on end should be enough of a hint, but there are still people who believe in the myth above. According to the US Department of Agriculture, carbon dioxide only becomes toxic at concentrations above 4%. For context, the atmosphere's carbon dioxide concentration is 0.04%. Theoretically, a tight enough face mask could cause carbon dioxide levels to increase to unhealthy levels. For example, if you seal a plastic bag around your face, you would pass out. But fortunately, plastic bags aren't required to wear in public. Just a piece of thin cloth! Surgical masks are not tight enough to restrict oxygen flow. Think about it...oxygen and carbon dioxide molecules are extremely small! I mean, we're talking atomic size. They can pass through a mask!
Myth #3: Injecting or Spraying Yourself with Bleach will Protect You From COVID-19
Fact: DO NOT under any circumstances inject or spray yourself with bleach. These substances are poisonous and can actually kill you. These products should only be used to clean surfaces. This seems like common sense, but after Trump mentioned the idea on the news one day, people actually started taking his medically inaccurate advice. He claimed that he was speaking sarcastically and federal authorities were quick to shut down these claims to prevent another public health crisis, but in the future this risk cannot be taken if we want to stop the spread of medical misinformation.
Myth #4: Holding Your Breath for 10 seconds or More without Coughing Means You Are COVID Free
Fact: Amid the sea of misinformation coming from politicians, social media trends have actually aided in the spread of it as well. A couple months ago, a trend started on TikTok (which then spread to other platforms such as Facebook, Whatsapp, and Instagram) where famous influencers would hold their breath for 10 seconds and if they had no cough or discomfort, then they didn't have the coronavirus. Infectious Disease doctors across the globe were quick to address this claim on Twitter, saying that most young patients with COVID-19 will be able hold their breath for much longer than ten seconds, and elderly people who are healthy may not. There is no scientific evidence of the claim made on social media to be true. No proper scientific studies have even been done. This was just a claim made by someone to gain clout on a platform where trends spread very rapidly. Healthcare workers at Stanford University said that this is a "dangerous" claim and contains "inaccurate information." Specialists at Baylor University also said that this trend is "extremely alarmist." This is because we have seen many cases where people are asymptomatic. If people use this test to self-diagnose (even though there is no scientific evidence proving that this test is accurate) but actually have the virus and are asymptomatic, they can go around spreading the virus to other vulnerable populations were the effects could be detrimental. This is just one example of how social media can spread false information regarding the coronavirus.
Myth #5: Children Cannot Get COVID-19
Fact: Children CAN catch COVID-19. Although in most cases they tend to experience milder symptoms such as low-grade fever, fatigue, and a cough, children can still catch and transmit the coronavirus. In rarer cases, children can actually experience a life threatening condition called Multi-System Inflammatory Syndrome due to COVID-19. If you want to learn more about this condition, visit this article.
Trump and his administration have made it clear that they want kids to return to school this fall (if you want to read why this may not be so easy for low-income schools, read this article). The Trump campaign posted a clip from Trump's interview with Fox News in which he claimed, "kids are almost immune from this disease." This claim was so dangerously misleading and medically inaccurate that Twitter and Facebook actually had to delete that post. Although it is a good thing that these social media organizations are able to recognize and delete COVID-19 misinformation, these billionaires are being held responsible for what information is being relayed to the public. There have been several other viral trends and posts that haven't been deleted because they attract people to the app (such as Myth #4). Instead of relying on sometimes biased organizations to prevent the spread of misinformation, we should take it into our own hands.
What You Can Do
1. Learn the Basics of COVID-19
Use websites such as the CDC or WHO to learn how the disease is transmitted, what the common symptoms are, and which regions are being impacted the most.
Knowing these basics will help you identify relevant content better understand updates as they are released.
Visit our News in Medicine section to also learn some of the basics and updates!
2. Learn How to Examine Sources
Examining an article's source should be the first step in extracting any information.
Be careful of biased news sources. If you are one to listen to more biased news sources, be sure to listen to the other side as well and draw your own conclusions.
The CDC, NIH, and WHO tend to be the most accurate when it comes to coronavirus information, so look there if you want to know the facts and the data.
Look at the date of the articles! Make sure you aren't looking at data from a few months ago.
3. Share High Quality Content
This article has been focused on how social media has been used to spread false information. But, you can combat this by spreading accurate information!
Given the complex social media algorithms, false content can easily become viral due to high numbers of interactions.
Therefore, it is important to help elevate high-quality content and interact with other high-quality content so that it gains more visibility.
Definitely one of the things that differentiates this viral outbreak from others in history is the fact that the media has allowed people around the globe to spread and believe in medical myths, further contributing to the difficulty in stopping the spread of the virus.
But, the good news is, you have the power to stop the spread of medical misinformation in a world increasingly connected through technology. If you'd like, let us know what you've done or what you plan on doing to stop the spread of misinformation!
Note: Images are our own