The COVID infodemic could kill as many people as the pandemic, so take this Cambridge test to inoculate yourself without delay

By Jim James,

Founder EASTWEST PR and Host of the SPEAK|pr Podcast

In the beginning of 2020, news of the global pandemic was spreading fast, and the World Health Organization issued a warning about the ‘infodemic’ or the wave of fake news and misinformation about the virus on social media. Now, the concern is that people are actually refusing to get vaccinated, because they have bought into some of the misinformation. In fact, in November of 2020, a study from Cornell University in the US found that President Trump had been the world’s biggest driver of COVID-19 misinformation following the pandemic. 

Research on the ‘infodemic’

Photo from Unesco

Numerous studies have been conducted, including one by a group called First Draft, and this one focuses on disinformation. Rory Smith of First Draft says that from an information perspective, the pandemic has not only underlined the sheer scale of misinformation worldwide, but it has also highlighted the negative impact misinformation can have on trust in vaccines, institutions, and scientific findings. In some countries, like in Pakistan, up to 10% of the population surveyed had not even heard of the coronavirus, so it does seem as though coronavirus news which for some is everywhere, for some is nowhere. Some say the news is not reliable, and it’s actually having a negative impact on their trust in the way that the vaccines might be rolled out.

A study entitled Social Media and Vaccine Hesitancy by Professor Steven Wilson of Brandeis University was published in the British Medical Journal in October 2020, and it found a link between online disinformation campaigns and a decline in vaccination. Professor Wilson fears that disinformation on social media in the context of COVID-19 leads to the increase in the number of individuals who are hesitant about getting vaccinated, even if their fears have no scientific basis. The conspiracy that was the most valid was the one by President Trump that COVID-19 was engineered in a Wuhan laboratory. Between 22-23% of respondents in the UK and the US rated this assertion that it’s a Wuhan virus as reliable. In Ireland, that number rose to 26%. In Mexico and Spain, it jumped to 33% and 37%, respectively. 

GoViral! with the right information

Before, finding a vaccine was the goal. Now that vaccines have been developed, the main problem is the information pandemic, or rather, the spread of fake news. A study published in the Royal Society Open Science publication says that certain misinformation claims are believed to be reliable by members of the public. They also found that people who rate the coronavirus conspiracy theories as reliable are much less likely to get vaccinated. One author of this study and director of the University of Cambridge Social Decision-Making Lab, Dr. Sander vander Laden, along with his team found a clear link between those who believe the coronavirus conspiracies and hesitancy around a future vaccine. To combat this, Cambridge’s Social Decision-Making Lab along with the UK Cabinet Office created a cool online game called GoViral!, which shows how misinformation can be amplified and shared. It helps inoculate players against fake news by lifting the lid on common misinformation techniques, and it enables one to look at the correlation between one’s beliefs, demographics, and the perceived reliability of misinformation. 

Scoring high on a series of numeracy tasks given as part of the study as well as declaring a high levels of trust in scientists are significantly and consistently associated with low levels of susceptibility to false information across nations. The lead author of this study and a postdoctoral fellow in the Cambridge Department of Psychology, Dr. Jon Roozenbeek, says numeracy skills are the most important and most significant predictor of resistance to misinformation. Analysing the information available online could be crucial to curbing the infodemic and promoting good health behavior. 

Back to the GoViral! game, which has three sections, under the section on emotion, it says that using emotionally charged words provoke outrage. Rather than reacting immediately, it would be wise to be cautious and critical when emotionally charged words are used in the content that you see. Under the ‘fake expert’ section, which asks you to identify information that had an expert and information that did not have an expert and to give your view on which one was more important, it says a lie can appear more reliable when sources back it up. Even if that source doesn’t exist, isn’t credible, or was misquoted, it’s easy to be blinded by fancy degrees or medical terminology, so one must always be sure to check the credibility of the source. While it is normal to be skeptical, the reality is that many things can’t be reduced to a simple cause. And so, GoViral! game is a fascinating illustration of one’s own interpretation of information on posts, one’s own perception of when information is given by people that are in positions of authority, and engagement with posts that have negative content. 

As the coronavirus vaccine is being rolled out, the irony of the conversation is that the medical problem has been somewhat solved, but now, it’s the psychological aspect that has become an issue, that people have believed the conspiracy theories to such a great degree using the infodemic on social media that they no longer actually want to take what’s good for them. While social media has become this amazing channel for sharing what’s been going on around COVID, the challenge for governments worldwide and companies like AstraZeneca, Moderna, and Pfizer or like the WHO is to convince people that vaccines are safe and effective. So, whatever you read, check it for facts. Look at the rationale if you’re going online, and make sure that you are not being fed a conspiracy.

This article is based on a transcript from my Podcast SPEAK|pr, you can listen here.

Cover Photo from Cronista

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