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IST 605: Misinformation and COVID-19

An exploration of misinformation as it pertains to the spread, severity, and effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

What Is Misinformation?

The most intense battle against COVID-19 - from the end of 2019 to 2022 - wasn't just about fighting a virus; it was equally about combating the spread of misinformation that essentially impeded the world's collective response to the pandemic. In this section, readers can examine the nature of misinformation, helping to understand what it is, its various forms, and how it spreads.

Definition and Types:

  • What is Misinformation? According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word misinformation, a noun, is defined as "wrong or misleading information."
  • Types of Misinformation: COVID-19 misinformation took many forms. Common types included:
    • False Remedies and Cures: Unsubstantiated claims about products or methods that can prevent or cure COVID-19.
    • Conspiracy Theories: Narratives that suggest hidden, often nefarious forces behind the pandemic's spread or response.
    • Misleading Statistics and Data: Out-of-context or manipulated data to draw incorrect conclusions about the virus, its spread, or the effectiveness of health measures.

The Spread of Misinformation:

  • Channels of Dissemination: Misinformation about COVID-19 often spread through social media platforms, certain sensationalist news outlets, and word-of-mouth. These channels amplified false narratives rapidly, reaching wide audiences.
  • Why Does Misinformation Spread? Several factors contribute to the spread of misinformation:
    • Cognitive Biases: People tend to favor information that confirms their pre-existing beliefs or biases.
    • Emotional Engagement: Misinformation often provokes strong emotional reactions, making it more likely to be shared.
    • The Role of Social Media: Algorithms on social media platforms are designed to engage users by showing them content similar to what they have interacted with before, which can create echo chambers that reinforce misinformation.
    • Uncertainty and Fear: In times of crisis, uncertainty and fear can make individuals more susceptible to believing and sharing misinformation, as they grasp for explanations and solutions.


Effects on COVID-19

As COVID-19 spread across the United States, public health officials and science communicators found themselves wrangling both the pandemic and what was often described as an “infodemic”: a barrage of false and misleading information about the disease, treatments, and eventually vaccines. In the attached Youtube video, the National Library of Medicine hosts a "talk" where experts explore that infodemic, drawing on research that examined how it took shape, what narratives reached which publics, and the network dynamics that assisted its spread.