Amid Coronavirus Pandemic, Misinformation Puts Public Health at Risk

Here are five things you can do to counter misinformation and protect one another.

Natnan Srisuwan/ Getty Images
Natnan Srisuwan/ Getty Images

By now, most of us are aware that we can help mitigate the spread of COVID-19 by washing our hands, staying home as much as we can, and limiting social contact. But to flatten the curve — and ultimately halt this pandemic — we must also stop the spread of misinformation and disinformation, which can be as contagious and more dangerous than the disease itself. 

As the coronavirus has made its way around the world, unfortunately, so too have baseless rumors and dangerous claims. Over the past few weeks, we’ve seen a proliferation of lies, hoaxes, and scams on every corner of the internet — from a widely-shared conspiracy theory that the virus is a manmade bioweapon, to the sale of counterfeit masks and respirators on Amazon. And across social media, people have begun peddling so-called COVID-19 “miracle cures,” including dietary supplements, fake vaccines, and even homemade toothpaste.

You don’t have to be a public health expert to know there’s no such thing as anti-coronavirus toothpaste. However, most of the false information and disinformation going around isn’t quite so easy to discern. Much of it purports to be from legitimate sources. At the tipping point of this crisis two weeks ago, thousands of people sent text messages, which appeared to come from the NYPD, falsely announcing a shutdown of New York City roads and public transportation. Robocallers masquerading as health care providers are also spamming landlines and cellphones, offering access to “free” COVID-19 tests. (It should go without saying: Do not “press 1” after the tone.) 

In some cases, misinformation actually does come from legitimate sources. Over the course of this pandemic, a number of journalists have reported “facts” they’ve later had to walk back. Even the White House press briefings have at times been at odds with evidence-based guidance from the public health community. And that can have serious consequences. 

On Monday, an Arizona man tragically died after ingesting chloroquine phosphate. His wife, who took it too, was left in critical condition. They’d mistakenly believed the substance could protect them from COVID-19 based on something they’d heard the president of the United States say. To be clear: No matter what you read or hear, no drugs have yet been approved for the prevention or treatment of this coronavirus. Self-medicating can be harmful and — as this tragic case shows — even deadly.

There’s a reason misinformation like this runs rampant in times of crisis. People around the world are living in fear of what lies ahead. It is particularly so in emergent public health crises when there is a lot of uncertainty. Learning everything we can — and sharing it to help our friends and family — is our way of coping with uncertainty and reasserting some semblance of control over our lives. That desire, a dearth of sometimes conflicting COVID-19 guidance, and reliance on social media among many for news, has made us especially susceptible to misleading content and outright scams. And it’s putting lives in danger. 

Another serious consequence is how this affects those who are more vulnerable among us. As we documented in our research, several groups — lower income, racial and ethnic minorities and other groups — suffer inequalities in communication: lack of access to and difficulties in processing complex information. In other words, the flood of misleading information results in a double dose of bad outcomes for those who are already likely to suffer more as result of COVID-19 fall out. 

Misinformation makes it more difficult for public health officials to break through the noise and provide people with the right information to stay safe and healthy. Moreover, it fuels panic and anxiety that can have a debilitating effect on our mental health. And, of course, acting on faulty medical advice can cause people to make catastrophic health decisions. 

So, it’s imperative we communicate responsibly. That, of course, goes for people and organizations with large followings and an outsized impact on public discourse. But there are steps all of us should take to protect ourselves and each other: 

1. Educate yourself about the virus.

The more you know about COVID-19, the easier it will be to identify misinformation. The World Health Organization and Centers for Disease Control are both excellent sources of accurate, up-to-date pandemic guidance. We at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health are also posting the latest news and interviews from our epidemiologists and credentialed experts on our website and social media channels. 

2. Pause and verify before you share.

No matter where you get your news, it’s important to vet it before you pass it along to anyone else. After all, false content can only go viral if we spread it. Any time you learn something new about this pandemic, stop to question its veracity before you share it with your friends, family, or followers. Lookup the information to see where else it’s been reported and double-check it against official C.D.C. and W.H.O. guidance.

3. Maintain a healthy dose of skepticism.

Be wary of posts that prey on fear, bigotry or purport to prevent or treat COVID-19 — especially if they include a product for sale. Ask yourself, “Who stands to gain from this information?” And remember, no matter what anyone says, there is currently no vaccine or cure for this virus.  

4. Get used to a level of uncertainty.

Researchers are learning more about this coronavirus each and every day, but there are still a lot of unanswered questions — and we can expect that uncertainty to continue in the coming weeks and months. It’s important to accept that we don’t yet have all of the answers about this pandemic. In the meantime, don’t fill the void with unverified information. 

5. Don’t go down the information rabbit hole.

The constant barrage of coronavirus-related content can be hard on our mental and emotional well-being. Instead of binge-watching the news or refreshing Twitter, stay informed about COVID-19 by periodically checking the C.D.C. and W.H.O.’s situation reports and, if applicable, signing up for your city’s text alerts. And remember that it’s OK — even healthy — to unplug for a bit.

We still don’t know exactly how or when this public health crisis will end. The situation is continually evolving. But for now, the best weapon we have against this pandemic is the truth. Public health communication, especially in times of crisis, depends on transparency, credibility and trust. Truth is foundation of these three principles. Lives really do depend on our ability to get factual, real-time information to everyone — and in that sense, all of us must now be first responders. 

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