Defined as “false or inaccurate information, especially that which is deliberately intended to deceive” misinformation poses a serious threat to public health during the COVID-19 pandemic. The rapid spreading of such misinformation is amplified by social media and could result in the lack of adherence to recommended public health measures, or engagement in non-recommended behaviours. For example, one article claiming Sweden, where lockdown measures were not implemented, is experiencing low death rates has been shared over 20,000 times on Facebook. The truth is that Sweden has a death toll of over 4,000, a much higher figure than the combined toll of Scandinavian neighbours Denmark and Norway, which have implemented stricter lockdown measures and have recorded fewer than 1,000 deaths between them.
While social media can be a useful tool for staying informed on the COVID-19 crisis, the study finds that when people become overloaded with social media content, their ability to critically assess the validity of the information received is impaired. The result is that trust in the unverified information remains high, and they are more likely to share that content throughout their social network, which ultimately exacerbates the COVID-19 misinformation problem.
The study also sheds light on the emerging problem of ‘cyberchondria’ - the unfounded escalation of concerns about common symptomology based on review of search results and literature online. The data shows when people attribute a higher severity and susceptibility to COVID-19, they spend more time searching online for COVID-19 symptoms, which amplifies the stress and anxiety experienced because of cyberchondria.
Co-author of the study, Dr Eoin Whelan, Senior Lecturer in Business Information Systems, J.E. Cairnes School of Business and Economics at NUI Galway, said: “While misinformation is not a new problem, the quantity and dissemination of misinformation has grown exponentially due to the ubiquity of social media. We have already seen the impact misinformation spreading through social media can have in political elections. Now, we are witnessing its harmful effects on public health in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Our study suggests when people become overloaded with social media content, they are not only more likely to believe unverified COVID-19 information, but will further contribute to the problem by spreading the misinformation onto others.”
The study also explains how social media companies can use these findings to help curtail the problem of COVID-19 misinformation. “Social media companies have a significant role to play in curbing COVID-19 misinformation. WhatsApp has already introduced restrictions on the forwarding of messages containing COVID-19 related information, while Google directs people searching for COVID-19 related information to trusted websites. Our findings suggest that if social media companies also restrict the amount of COVID-19 specific information people are exposed to, this would be effective in curbing the misinformation and cyberchondria problems identified in our study. Additionally, health organisations can use our findings to educate social media users to consume content in a sustainable manner and thus avoid these problems”, says Dr Whelan.
Dr Whelan is a Senior Lecturer in Business Information Systems at the National University of Ireland, Galway. He is also a visiting professor at the Institute d’Economie Scientifique et de Gestion (IESEG), France, and a visiting researcher at Stellenbosch University, South Africa. He received his PhD from NUI Galway in 2010. His current research interests focus upon understanding how digital technologies influence wellbeing, decision making, performance, and work-life conflict. His publications have appeared in the 3* journals MIT Sloan Management Review, Information Systems Journal, R&D Management, Journal of Information Technology, and Information & Organization.