Mass infodemic: hoaxes and contagious lies during the pandemic

In parallel with the covid-19 pandemic, a huge number of hoaxes have been spread, mainly through social networks. This phenomenon reached such a magnitude that the WHO described it as a “mass infodemic”, the “other pandemic” of misinformation. He also warned of its dangers, especially because it prevents the public from accessing reliable information about the disease. Many of these hoaxes were related to scientific and health issues.

In English, a distinction is made between misinformationwhich refers to the voluntary transmission of falsehoods and hoaxes, and misinformation, which is when errors are transmitted but unintentionally. We are more concerned with the former. And for this reason, a group of researchers from the University of Navarra have just published in PLOS ONE an study on the (intentional) disinformation of hoaxes related to health and science about covid-19 in Spain.

Science and health, very susceptible to hoaxes

In the study we analyzed a total of 533 hoaxes published on the websites of the three main data verification organizations in Spain (DamnNewtral and EFE Verifies). These are the only Spanish organizations certified by the International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN)entity that evaluates the quality of the work of verification organizations around the world.

The hoaxes have been analyzed for a period of three months, from March 11 (the day the WHO declared the covid-19 pandemic) to June 10, 2020.

Well, the results show that more than a third of all these hoaxes (187) were related to health and science issues. Most of them (55%) were transmitted during the first month of the state of alarm, probably because the situation we were experiencing was new, the level of uncertainty was very high, and the lack of information was tremendous.

In the study we have analysed, among other things, on what type of platform they were distributed (social networks or others), the format (text, photo, video…), the geographical extension (international, national or local), the type of disinformation (joke, exaggeration, decontextualization or outright deception), the type of source (whether it was real, anonymous or false) and whether it was related to scientific research, scientific policy or health management. We also look at hoaxes related to false advice to the public.

The results have shown that more than 50% of science and health hoaxes have been distributed through social networks. It is surprising that more than 25% were transmitted via WhatsApp, a messaging network that until then we had only used to communicate quickly in family and friends environments. The hoaxes also moved via Twitter (12%), Facebook (8%), YouTube (5.5%) and Instagram (2%).

This result is consistent with something we already knew: that the use of social networks increased significantly during confinement. Regarding the type of disinformation, more than 60% were genuine hoaxes or hoaxes, 23% were statements out of context, 14% exaggerations and only 1% were jokes (some in such bad taste as “Do you want to get the coronavirus? For only 60 euros we will infect you”).

A third of the hoaxes were related to scientific research, most of them on the origin of the virus (42%), but also on other topics such as false treatments (25%), vaccines (15%), the mortality rate ( 5%) or the transmissibility of the virus (5%).

Some of the most curious hoaxes, for example, were: 5G is responsible for the spread of the virus, smoking protects you against coronavirus, consuming alkaline foods cures the disease, sunbathing prevents covid-19, consuming coffee cure disease, etc.

Science Express Accelerated

Although there were hoaxes without any scientific basis, others were related to investigations that were still in their initial state or were preliminary studies. Sometimes they were due to misinterpretation, readings taken out of context or misinterpretations by non-specialized personnel. Others, to the diffusion of pre-publications (preprints) that had been made public but had not yet been reviewed.

Part of the problem has been the need to share results in real time, what we have called “hurried, express or high-speed science”. Without going any further, at the end of January 2020 the magazine Nature published a comment in which its author was amazed that in less than twenty days since the existence of the new Chinese coronavirus had been announced, more than 50 scientific articles had been published. Even then that figure was impressive.

Today, there are more than 240,000 scientific articles on the SARS-CoV-2 virus or covid-19 disease in PubMed, surpassing those that appear under the heading of “malaria”, for example. The number of scientific publications during the pandemic, and especially that of preprintshas been of such magnitude that not only the scientists themselves, but also publishers and specialized magazines have been overwhelmed.

Covid-19 has been a perfect storm to spread both misinformation and deliberately false news or hoaxes.

The hoax of the artificial origin of SARS-CoV-2

An example of the consequences of this “rushed science” was an article that proposed that SARS-CoV-2 was an artificial mixture generated by genetic engineering in a laboratory between a coronavirus and the HIV retrovirus that causes AIDS. It was published as preprint on January 30, 2020 and withdrawn by the authors themselves on February 2 when verifying that there were errors in their bioinformatic analyzes and in their interpretation. However, the article was downloaded more than 1.6 million times and was one of the most commented on social networks, promoting the hoax of the artificial origin of SARS-CoV-2.

Unfortunately, Luc Montagnier, Nobel Prize in Medicine in 2008 for having been the co-discoverer of the HIV virus, echoed this hoax. It should be remembered here that, in recent years, the prestige of this researcher has been overshadowed by his support for anti-vaccine movements and in favor of homeopathic medicine.

We can relate this case to the problem of what we call “extended authority”. This is what it is called when real or even fictitious characters, with the excuse of their authority, dedicate themselves to transmitting falsehoods and become a very serious source of disinformation, endangering the health of many people. Doctors or biologists “for the truth” are an example of this.

We have never had as much scientific knowledge or technical capacity to deal with a pandemic as we do now. But science needs rest, time, to repeat experiments, for others to confirm the same results and for some scientists to evaluate others. Scientific work is sometimes not compatible with the immediacy of the news.

The hydroxychloroquine scandal

Perhaps the most scandalous case has been that of hydroxychloroquine. Preliminary studies had shown that this compound was capable of inhibiting the multiplication of SARS-CoV-2 in vitro in cell cultures in the laboratory.

These results made hydroxychloroquine one of the antivirals that first began to be tested in the most serious cases of covid-19. A famous (and also peculiar) French microbiologist, Didier Raoult, adviser to the French Government in the fight against the pandemic, quickly published that this compound was effective in humans against the coronavirus.

The WHO included hydroxychloroquine in the Solidarity clinical trial. However, some scientists criticized Raoult’s work and warned of possible side effects and of not having found significant benefits in patients. Raoult himself denounced a plot and accused the Scientific Council of France and the North American laboratory Gilead of stopping the use of hydroxychloroquine which, being an available and cheap remedy, was not very profitable for the big pharmaceutical companies.

This matter was further clouded when the president of the United States, Donald Trump, revealed in a press conference that he was taking hydroxychloroquine to prevent the coronavirus. The consequence of that eccentricity was that, in some places, there was a shortage of the product, so some patients who really needed it had problems obtaining it. The efficacy of hydroxychloroquine became a political issue, with some in favor and others against, for reasons more ideological than scientific.

To further complicate the matter, an article published in one of the most prestigious journals in the field of biomedicine, The Lancet, warned that hydroxychloroquine was not only useless but was associated with serious adverse effects and an increased risk of death. .

The work was not experimental, the authors were based on statistical data from more than 96,000 patients from 671 hospitals around the world. Based on this study, the WHO decided to discontinue the use of hydroxychloroquine. However, later a group of 120 scientists from 24 countries questioned these results in turn and carefully analyzed the data published in The Lancet, which proved to be unreliable. It was confirmed that the work was a fraud and that even some of the authors had already been denounced for malpractice previously. The The Lancet magazine had to withdraw the article two weeks after it was published and this event was dubbed #TheLancetGate.

Science has gone at high speed, but fortunately the rectifications have also been express: the magazine withdrew the controversial article on hydroxychloroquine in just two weeks.

How to detect and avoid a hoax

To make it easier for us to detect disinformation, within the Health RRSS project we have created a “Guide to avoid health disinformation”.

Some basic ideas are:

  • Analyze the source: Find the source of the information and compare it with other alternative sources on the same topic or news. Do not trust the information if it is anonymous, if it lacks external references or if it is not specifically and expressly identified.

  • Analyze the style and content: be wary of sensational or alarmist headlines, but also of images or videos taken out of context.

  • Analyze the argument: distrust information with non-existent, weak, incomplete or contradictory argumentation, and if there is false evidence or errors.

  • Analyze ideological biases: Keep in mind that the information may have ideological biases, in favor or against certain political, economic, social approaches, etc.

  • Analyze how the diffusion has been done: Automated information distribution is also sometimes used to spread disinformation, so you should be wary of suspicious spreads. Be wary of social networks and messaging.

One version of this article was originally published on the author’s blog, microbe.

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Mass infodemic: hoaxes and contagious lies during the pandemic