Library Dissertation Showcase

COVID-19: The infodemic – exploring the social implications of spreading coronavirus misinformation through social media

  • Year of Publication:
  • 2021

As new diseases emerge, the field of epidemiology transpires as a vital area of study essential for the effective management of outbreaks. During investigations into the causes and effects of diseases, teams of epidemiologists work to contain outbreaks ranging from minor isolated events to more severe global pandemics. When we think of crises like COVID-19, it is important to consider that the viral threat is not just limited to the physical world; it also manifests electronically in the form of viral information. Our dependence on online interaction bears the emergence of threats that stem from continuous exposure to an overabundance of unreliable information, otherwise known as an information epidemic, or infodemic (Rothkopf, 2003). Some describe studies into the distribution of online information, particularly in the context of health, as infodemiology. The term shares stark similarities to epidemiology in both name and meaning. This new research discipline aims to bring clarity to how online information circulates and evolves, and with this, it helps to mitigate the issues surrounding the proliferation of harmful health-related content in the online information environment (Eysenbach, 2002).

The term infodemic, which has recently seen a revival in usage, was initially coined with reference to the 2002 SARS epidemic. This health crisis saw vast quantities of information plague the internet, making sourcing accurate news and guidance challenging (Rothkopf, 2003). Nearly 20 years later, we are again facing severe doubts surrounding the veracity of online content during a health crisis. This time, the scale of the crisis is exponentially greater. On social media, we face influxes of misinformation covering the origins of the virus, preventative techniques, treatments, and more. The well-trusted World Health Organization (WHO) has continually acknowledged the existence of this infodemic through statements warning against the proliferation of false coronavirus information (WHO, 2020a). They are now no stranger to using the term, having recognised its importance in multiple press releases and even their very own infodemiology conference held in mid-2020 – a first of its kind (WHO, 2020c).

With overwhelming quantities of uncontrolled and largely unregulated content, social media platforms continue to give way to the spread of misinformation, despite some mediocre attempts by the networks to moderate harmful content. Baseless theories and misleading coronavirus stories spread with an alarming sense of virality rivalled only by the disease itself. Exposure to a never-ending cycle of inaccurate media content can impede effective crisis management, cause psychological panic, and result in the undermining of official medical advice through the promotion of erroneous practices (WHO, 2020a). Suppose people were to alter their behaviours as a result of influence by misleading content. In that case, this could pose potential health risks not just to the individuals, but as the coronavirus is a highly infectious and transmissible disease, it can also directly affect the wellbeing of communities and populations on a far grander scale.

Due to newly imposed safety measures in the UK and around the world, many people had no choice but to adapt their daily lifestyles to work, study, and socialise remotely. Collectively, we moved from the physical to the digital seemingly overnight. Reliance now falls heavily on the internet to stay connected to one another, keep productive, and be informed. In times of crisis, staying informed is crucial, and social media platforms enable a straightforward method for keeping up to date throughout the day. As they attempt to replicate fundamental human social interactions, these networks are highly participatory by design, encouraging constant communication and continuous information sharing (Oh & Syn, 2015). With the powerful ability to act as both consumers and producers, the everyday citizen can discover, create, and disseminate stories easily through these networks. The very success of social media platforms is dependent on this high level of interaction.

Similar to how viruses spread through populations, the spread of online content is driven primarily by the public. Boundary-free environments can lead to a snowball effect resulting in the far-reaching distribution of unreliable content. Many of the most sizeable social media platforms have sought to remove harmful content, but the scale of the current crisis far outweighs the somewhat muted efforts of these tech giants (Graham & Hern, 2020). Facebook and YouTube allowed one conspiracy-laden video to garner upwards of 20 million combined views before being taken down (Kaplan, 2021). The video, entitled Planet Lockdown, promoted false conspiracy theories about COVID-19 and vaccines. The format was similar to another video named Plandemic, which made waves previously in the earlier stages of the pandemic. Allowing this kind of content to reach such vast audiences is simply not acceptable. Undertaking new research is crucial to discover, understand, and develop feasible ways to combat deceptive health-related content in a faster, more efficient manner.

In research, many scholars use a process of triangulation to effectively verify findings and enhance the overall credibility of their studies. Triangulation involves using multiple information sources and investigative approaches to enhance understanding of a particular subject (Salkind, 2010). Effective triangulation enriches research and helps to refute elements that may devalue parts of an investigation. As we navigate an information age ushered in through the advent of widespread digital communication, we now face new challenges resulting from the fragmented information environment. To overcome these, we must proactively seek novel approaches to combatting online harms. A multifaceted, triangulated approach to research is vital for devising the solutions to this complex information epidemic.

Never has there been a pandemic where digital technologies and social media platforms have been accessible at the scale we see today. In the sections that follow, this investigation will explore the social implications of spreading COVID-19 misinformation through social media networks in the United Kingdom. The study delves into a multitude of topic areas, including perceptions of truth, the exploitation of networks, factors affecting virality, and social media regulations. Methods for building resistance against misinformation are closely reviewed, whilst responses from an online survey reveal whether exposure to misinformation has a noticeable influence on the opinions of university students. Finally, the study concludes with new proposals for a selection of practical preventative measures which could aid in the goal to attain a collective resistance against deceitful online content. By presenting a culmination of theories, ideas, and methods, this study aims to tackle many of the newly evolving aspects of this research area and applies these specifically to the context of the coronavirus infodemic.

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