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Sheer volume of misinformation risks diverting focus from fighting coronavirus

To manage the COVID-19 pandemic, be it from a personal, national or global perspective, we rely on a constant stream of information. A plethora of dashboards have appeared globally that convey information on the number of people tested, those who are positive, the number of deaths and those who have recovered. This information is constantly being updated and forms the basis on which individuals and governments make important decisions. Everything concerning the pandemic, however, appears to be open to interpretation.

Managing life in the era of COVID-19 is not trivial, from having to cope on a personal level with long periods of isolation during lockdown, to governments making critical decisions at a national level, and the World Health Organisation providing guidance at a global level. The jury is still out as to how many people might be infected. Lockdown certainly appears to flatten the curve, but will the “area under the curve” – the total number of people infected – remain the same over time? We will get a better picture of the true incidence of infection as widespread testing for both the virus and the host response (testing for anti-viral antibodies) become the norm.

Many other questions remain to be answered. Will we be immune to the virus once infected? Will this be seasonal or is COVID-19 here to stay? When will a vaccine be ready?

As we seek information to guide our own understanding and decisions, we are constantly encouraged to consult reliable sources and to stay away from social media. What is a reliable source? Can we believe our political leaders? Are governments “coming clean”? And could the scientific models we are being asked to believe in fact be misleading?

The recognition that the COVID-19 pandemic is accompanied by an equally alarming “infodemic” has added a level of complexity to the situation. What are the consequences of this avalanche of information?

Misinformation is one consequence – one which may affect public trust in the medical profession and in scientific research. This in turn complicates an already difficult task, since it may lead to some people clutching at relatively accessible “solutions” instead of going for testing and medical treatment. Proposing – and accepting – untried and seemingly miraculous cures may hamper the medical management of patients with COVID-19, and may in fact be dangerous, even fatal.

Misinformation creates fear and confusion. It also causes stress, anxiety and depression.

The sheer magnitude of the infodemic is overwhelming, and potentially harmful, as it interferes with the management of the disease. It is also taking up time and energy from people who could be contributing in a more positive way.

Read more: Debunking 9 popular myths doing the rounds in Africa about the coronavirus

The drivers

A healthy debate is necessary for the resolution of important matters pertaining to COVID-19. But it is equally important to understand the drivers behind the intentional creation and dissemination of misinformation.

Genuine differences in beliefs and understanding may result in the motivation to develop and test alternative hypotheses, which may appear as apparent misinformation.

Insecurity and fear are themselves powerful drivers, as is the need to exploit insecurity and fear in others to gain control and power. One might even include deep-seated psychological issues as possible drivers. And the idea that gaining a substantial following on social media may lead to material wealth is also plausible.

Misinformation may be aimed at undermining the credibility of people in positions of responsibility, often for political gain. (Mis)Information often exists in a parallel universe inhabited by people who propagate conspiracy theories that implicate the “deep state” in the design, manipulation and even the origin of COVID-19. This universe also derides the drive towards the development of a vaccine, implicating big pharma and corporate greed as the major drivers.

The power of the collective – as is evident, for example, on social media – is not always constructive, and may, in many instances, lead to harm.

Two particular examples stand out. The first has been confusion sown around the origin of the virus. Some have gone so far as to suggest that it had a synthetic origin – that the virus was manufactured and released into the population, intentionally or unintentionally. This has been countered with evidence supporting a higher probability of its natural origin (wet markets, bats or pangolins).

Read more: Scientists are still searching for the source of COVID-19: why it matters

Likewise, the argument that 5G is responsible for COVID-19.

These debates will continue to create confusion as long as important matters concerning the origin of the virus and its spread remain unresolved.

Read more: Why 5G conspiracy theories prosper during the coronavirus pandemic

Good and bad science

One of the defining characteristics of the COVID-19 pandemic is the remarkable speed at which medical and scientific research are being conducted to find a solution. But there is good science and bad science, and the collective voice calling for the maintenance of sound scientific principles and integrity in presenting research findings, is growing stronger every day.

Many hypotheses are being explored and until reliable data has been generated, it is irresponsible to speak of matters as a fait accompli. Not only do researchers have a responsibility to the people whose lives depend on finding solutions, but scientific evidence that is inaccurate may divert substantial time and resources.

At present, important matters are being disclosed and discussed without the quality-assuring scrutiny of peer review. Trying to clarify the validity of the claims and prevent the spread of misinformation utilises resources that could be better spent elsewhere.

To counter the negative effects of misinformation, governments, institutions and social media platforms have passed legislation and introduced policies and checking systems to weed out harmful information and sanction the perpetrators. But this isn’t enough.

Our communities depend on us as doctors and scientists to help them find the answers that will save lives and livelihoods. Our responsibilities lie in finding accurate and plausible scientific answers. They also lie in communicating them clearly, and in ensuring that information is not misrepresented or misunderstood.

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