COVID-19 'Infodemic': Researchers Step Up to Stop the Spread

Michael Vlessides

March 27, 2020

Editor's note: Find the latest COVID-19 news and guidance in Medscape's Coronavirus Resource Center.

The YouTube video seems authoritative enough. A man identified as Dr Dan Lee Dimke presents what he describes as the Achilles heel of the coronavirus ― exposure to high temperatures. Citing scientific studies, he claims that ending the virus is "remarkably easy" and only requires a few days of 20-minute sessions in a sauna. No sauna? No problem. Simply spray water onto your face and aim the hot air from a blow dryer up your nose for 5 minutes twice a day.

Dr Anatoliy Gruzd

If Anatoliy Gruzd, PhD, has his way, such bogus videos will soon find themselves on the electronic trash heap, and, thanks to nearly half a million dollars in funding from Canada's federal government, he may just get his wish. He and colleagues are tackling this misinformation issue head-on to stop what they call the COVID-19 "infodemic."

The federal grant money Gruzd and colleagues received is part of a larger COVID-19 research initiative by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) that, to date, has issued 96 grants for a total investment of $52.6 million.

"We've been working in the area of misinformation and social media for a number of years now. When we saw the call for proposals for the CIHR COVID-19 Rapid Response program back in February, we thought that it would be a good fit and a great opportunity to apply some of our tools and techniques previously developed to study political misinformation to track the spread of COVID-19 related misinformation in social media," Gruzd told Medscape Medical News.

There are two primary goals to the study, said Gruzd, Canada Research Chair of Social Media Data Stewardship at Ryerson University in Toronto.

"First, we want to contract the spread of misinformation and rumors related to coronavirus on social media sites. In doing so, we want to understand the pattern of information spread so we can develop mitigation strategies to prevent it from happening in the future."

Second, for public health groups, Gruzd said he and his colleagues are "trying to understand what makes certain messages more successful than others. Why does a post from a public health agency about coronavirus get a couple of hundred views while similar videos on YouTube and TikTok get millions? We'd like to help them use techniques to make sure their content is viewed by as many people as possible."

The study, Inoculating Against an Infodemic: Microlearning Interventions to Address CoV Misinformation, is a collaboration between Ryerson University and Royal Roads University in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada.

Come for the Misinformation, Stay for the Facts

One of the key elements of the initiative is a website ― http://covid19misinfo.org.

With the tagline, "Come for the misinformation, stay for the facts," the site offers a real-time information dashboard to help users track the veracity of current coronavirus claims.

The Internet is currently rife with all types of COVID-19 misinformation ― some of it well intentioned, some of it insidious, said Gruzd. On the well-intentioned side, people often post or share information regarding potential remedies or preventive measures they believe will kill the virus or curb its spread.

Conspiracy theories regarding COVID-19 are also rampant.

Individuals who ascribe to such theories speculate about the origin of the virus, often attributing it to foreign entities who want to spread fear in an effort to destabilize a target country. "None of this is true, either," said Grudz

There is also much more insidious content from individuals and organizations that seek to profit from the pandemic. Such disinformation can take many forms, including the collection of personal information via bogus emails and websites. These data can then be sold on the black market or used directly to do things such as apply for credit cards or loans.

"We've also seen mobile apps claiming to track coronavirus that turn out to be ransomware and lock a person's phone until they pay to unlock it," said Gruzd.

For unscrupulous individuals seeking to profit from the outbreak, the motivation is clear. Many others are motivated by a desire to help, though what they do doesn't improve the situation, and the way such messages spread is much like the virus itself, he noted.

Practice "Information Hygiene"

"Misinformation can take different forms," Gruzd said. People may receive a message from a friend and pass it on without thinking it could put someone at risk of contracting the virus. "Or it can start as a tweet, then become an Instagram post and then a meme that can be integrated into the mainstream media. So it can really take on a life of its own."

By developing a greater understanding of these types of viral patterns, the researchers hope to develop strategies to combat misinformation. Gruzd noted that just as individuals should be practicing strict personal hygiene during the outbreak, they should also practice what he describes as "information hygiene" and only get COVID-19 information from credible sources.

"People are told to spend enough time washing their hands. They should also be spending time checking the source of information before they share something," Gruzd said.

With this in mind, it's important for individuals to develop a cadre of trusted information sources. The covid19misinfo.org website has a page of many Canadian resources. Gruzd noted that the World Health Organization also has a number of information channels that individuals can follow.

For those who might not know which sources to trust and which to suspect, covid19misinfo.org uses publicly available datasets of fact-checked claims to identify and summarize current claims about the disease and gives them "truthfulness ratings."

Gruzd also noted that social media platforms and search engines play an important role in stopping the spread of misinformation. He's encouraged that major players such as Google and Facebook have taken a much more proactive role in curbing the spread of misinformation during the COVID-19 pandemic than they have before.

He said that search engines have started to populate searches for misinformation with links that either debunk such myths or direct users to credible sources.

"I'm glad to see various platforms are engaged in these mitigating strategies," he explained, "but history will tell us how effective they are."

Impossible to Stop

Commenting for Medscape Medical News, Alicia Wanless, co-director of the Partnership for Countering Influence Operations at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, in Washington, DC, who is not involved in the research initiative, said that although the spread of misinformation can be mitigated, it will never be stopped.

"The problem with misinformation is human nature. In the face of uncertainty, people crave information to make sense of the world. This opens up the floodgates, as it were, to information seeking, creation, and spread," said Wanless.

"It has always been this way. The difference now is that technology enables almost anyone to weigh in, post, and share content which can spread quickly and globally," she added.

Wanless suggested that scientific and medical organizations can help via public awareness campaigns that feature public health officials.

"Making sure people are aware of those reliable voices is important. Even if little is known during an emerging situation, communicating this and directing people to reliable information...is better than silence, which only increases ambiguity and uncertainty," she said.

Wanless added that there is a need for public awareness campaigns that explain how the information environment works and the risks of information seeking in the digital age.

Such a proactive approach, she said, would help stem the spread of misinformation when a crisis ― public health or otherwise ― occurs.

Wanless explained that opportunities exist for social media platforms and search engines to prioritize credible information.

"The challenge here is that social media also enables users to post and share content, which can include both misinformation and disinformation," she added. "Controlling that flow is a lot more difficult and can get messy quickly. For example, what happens when a world leader is the one spreading low-quality information during a pandemic?"

The study was funded by the Government of Canada. Gruzd and Wanless have reported no relevant financial relationships.

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