In this modern era, mainstream and social media have become primary sources of information for people all over the world, making the risk of misinformation epidemics surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic even more difficult to contain. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic outbreak has highlighted the interconnectedness of today’s globalized world, where public health threats can spread far beyond their point of origin due to an unwavering reliance on and misplaced trust in media platforms. Virtual communication has become the primary source of interaction during the lockdown, quarantine, self-isolation, and social distancing.
The COVID-19 pandemic outbreak has not only increased the challenges for healthcare, social, educational, economic, political, environmental, cultural, and socioeconomic systems all over the world, but it has also gained traction in a plethora of misinformation mechanisms: rumors, myths, superstitions, conspiracy theories, claims, hoaxes, misinformation, fake news, divergence, and mistrust in science in general.
The COVID-19 pandemic has flooded the mainstream media, which disseminates information on a local and global scale. Similarly, social media platforms have evolved into a readily available source of misinformation. Numerous incidents sparked by these rumors have resulted in numerous mishaps around the world. For example, a man committed suicide after receiving a positive COVID-19 diagnosis in India, and people overdosed on the drug chloroquine after hearing about its efficacy against COVID-19 (Nigeria). The general public has failed to distinguish between empirically-based scientific truths and fabricated, unconfirmed anti-science conspiracy theories. Such reports undermine the credibility of new scientific discoveries concerning a COVID-19 cure or vaccine. This can also lead to social stigma, which can lead to xenophobia, anti-Chinese sentiment, racism, marginalization, decreased compliance and adherence to quarantine, and negative health and psychosocial consequences. During the lockdown, these considerations become even more pronounced, leading people on the periphery of popular opinion to spend even more time on social media. As people try to make sense of their new lives, self-proclaimed celebrities, self-identified social media stars, politicians, and public figures from the mainstream media are spreading their subjective interpretations of events in this situation of COVID-19 pandemic.
Misinformation is a secondary challenge to public health efforts in controlling the pandemic, according to researches from previous disease outbreaks. Individuals who support disease misinformation are less likely to follow public health advice. During the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa, respondents who believed in conspiracy theories claimed that they would be less likely to seek help during the disease outbreak. In a 2019 study conducted in the United States, more than 90% of respondents reported trust in medical healthcare professionals, in contrast to a 2020 study in which the majority of respondents reported mistrust in COVID-19 information from the then administration and mainstream media news outlets.
The Psychology of Misinformation Epidemics
Fear is an adaptive emotion that mobilizes energy in the direction of a potential threat. When fear is excessive, it can impact both the individual mental health problems like anxiety and phobia, and the community, hoarding, panic shopping, xenophobia; when fear is insufficient, it can harm both the individual and the community. Similarly, interpersonal safety measures can reduce certain threats, such as disease transmission while paradoxically increasing fear like fear of transmission. Similarly, social safety measures like lockdowns, curfews aid in transmission control, but prolonged and stringent measures may have negative consequences such as socioeconomic and mental health impact on the population.
Because of the negative effects on public health communication, efforts to halt the misinformation epidemic have increased, as have efforts to encourage the adoption of long-term preventive measures, to manage social and physical distancing, psychological health and resilience in socioeconomic conditions, and to address stigma, prejudice, discrimination, and inequalities. Among the various psychological vulnerability factors, a tendency to follow popular opinion, excessive social media presence, and a proclivity to anxiety and fear result in uncertainty, intolerance, and unpredictability. COVID-19 causes high levels of uncertainty, and the inability to cope with uncertainty increases exponentially, causing anxiety, fear, and health-related concern. This situation is exacerbated by the exposure to a plethora of information, including misinformation and disinformation about the looming threat from both mainstream media and social media. Fear is increased by perceived threat information, and repeated engagement with trauma-related media content for several hours daily results in acute stress and emotional distress, which will either increase fear of the virus or cause insensitivity to its course.
As more people rely on social media platforms, identifying and monitoring the internet’s “centrifugal clarification” to filter the accuracy of content has become more difficult. One of the difficult issues with misinformation, disinformation, and conspiracy theories on social media is how they emulsify into false, misleading, and click-bait content. As a countermeasure to the spread of fake news on social media, the World Health Organization (WHO) launched a MythBusters feature on its website. People who reported the most media exposure experienced more acute stress. Media exposure accumulates ever-emerging threats, and repeated exposure to these events exacerbates distress symptoms. Worry, fixation, herd mentality, and misplaced conviction make people more vulnerable to the distress caused by media exposure.
In addition to the amount of media exposure, the type and content of media exposure are important – exposure to tragic events, graphic images, conspiracy theories, and violence may cause posttraumatic stress and fear of the future, leading to poor personal functioning. In recent years, the mainstream media (electronic, print, and social media) have expanded beyond one government-run channel, and the global population has developed a preference for news channels in particular.
While the older generation relies on more traditional news outlets, the younger generation looks to social media platforms such as TikTok, Instagram, YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, and WhatsApp. Social media has evolved into a new channel for disseminating rumors, deliberate misinformation, disinformation, conspiracy theories, and personally motivated anecdotes to attract followers, attract attention, and create panic. Some self-proclaimed celebrities and media stars have risen to such prominence that a large number of people rely solely on their content. Some social media ‘posts’ are circulating across multiple platforms and are endorsed by multiple social media account users to encourage optimal personal functioning, maximum productivity, business-oriented activities, and downplaying the severity of this traumatic event. Certain posts on various social media accounts, such as ‘if you don’t come out of this quarantine with a new skill, your side hustle started, more knowledge, then you never lacked time, you lacked discipline,’ prompting people to use their time in learning new things and skills, exacerbate the worry for already anxious individuals and place psychological pressure to be productive. Rather, messages such as ‘if you don’t come out of this quarantine with a new skill, a side hustle started, or more knowledge, then you are doing just fine’ should be shared on social media for people to realize that during such a traumatic event, not everyone is equally endowed with the strength, coping strategies, and problem-solving skills to transform trauma into a positive emotion.
People are under the impression that the lockdown is not a holiday and that they must use their time productively and engage in occupational or academic activities. This psychological stress has exacerbated feelings of guilt, shame, regret, sadness, self-pity, anger, internalized emotions, overwhelm, negative self-talk, unrealistic expectations, and a sense of failure. The psychological pressure to compete with peers in completing the most tasks, producing occupational and academic outcomes, amassing a herd of followers and subscribers on one’s social media accounts, and downplaying one’s own and others’ trauma will have disastrous effects on mental health.
Lockdown, which results in self-isolation, quarantine, and social distancing, is far from normal leisure time that could be used to improve personal functioning – it is a collective traumatic event that poses a serious threat to people and has resulted in a large loss of lives and displacement for many people. COVID-19 is an individual and collective traumatic event that has directly or indirectly affected every person on the planet. All efforts should be made to reduce the negative effects of the traumatic COVID-19 pandemic on survivors. In addition to the collective trauma of this pandemic, many people are experiencing interpersonal traumatic events such as domestic violence, that is, gender-based violence, abuse, financial burden, loneliness, emotional and behavioral problems, grief and bereavement, fear of losing family, mental health issues, physical injuries or fatalities.
Isolated people dealing with psychological issues require trauma-focused psychological support such as psychological cyber-counseling, which can be accessed via one’s smartphone, and mental health hotlines. Through government-driven programs and evidence-based treatment models, professional help-seeking behaviors should be encouraged and endorsed, and related barriers such as stigma, marginalization, discrimination, shaming, and phobias should be discouraged.
When confronted with conflicting opinions and conspiracy theories, emerging pandemics command the intellectual incapacity of decision-making, and thus the empirical interpretation of origins and impacts results in moral judgments based on religious and cultural beliefs. The emergence of HIV/AIDS sparked a slew of moral judgments centered on sexual morality and substance abuse; the arrival of SARS shifted blame to Guangzhou’s primitive farming practices, and the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic has ushered in a slew of misinformation on a variety of fronts. A psychological proclivity to reject authorized information through denial as a by-product of deep-seated mistrust, as well as a proclivity to interpret major social and political events through conspiracies and partisan motivations as a by-product of conspiracy thinking, are likely explanatory factors in understanding ‘why’ and ‘who’ believes in COVID-19 misinformation epidemics. The link between conspiracy thinking and defense-mechanism denial may be a contributing factor to the refusal of corrective actions in several health-related cases. Misinformation epidemics could be motivated by a variety of factors, including an epistemic desire for causal explanation and subjective certainty, an existential desire for control and security, or a social desire to maintain a positive image of oneself.
Stigmatization, labeling, scapegoating, and fear quickly follow, accompanied by a narrative that invokes the vernacular of human conflict – waging war against a killer virus, an invincible invisible threat, an enemy armed with no-vaccine flinging victims in quarantine camps – losing a sense of proportion and the ability to mitigate fear and use reasonable knowledge-based measures to challenge and normalize The mechanism of misinformation pandemics is engrossed in silos of public information that are incapable of limiting risks, such as the social theme focusing on socioeconomic disruption; a scientific theme centered on medical and health risk communication; and a pandemic theme centered on state and global response. Populations most likely to be affected by an emerging disease pandemic and a concurrent misinformation epidemic include those with disproportionally low or inadequate health literacy, disadvantaged socioeconomic groups, migrants, ethnic minorities, and vulnerable groups such as the elderly, people with chronic health conditions, and people with disabilities.
The politics of COVID 19 Pandemic
Conspiracy theories influenced by geopolitics have spread regarding the disease’s origin, scale, prevention, treatment, and self-diagnosis: of COVID-19 being a viral bioweapon genetically engineered by a rogue government with a racist and genocidal agenda to wage an economic and psychological war – the Chinese biological weapon conspiracy theory which has spread throughout North America; espionage; a population control scheme; Bill Gates Program; and medical misinformation such as, pre-existence of vaccines, cocaine cure, African resistance, 5G, vegetarian immunity, and methanol use and other views endorsed by some heads of States, and public figures abound, causing misinformation pandemics of incorrect information.
Meanwhile, COVID-19 may be viewed favorably through the partisan lens of right-wing nationalism and the cacophony of allegations. This Virus is a gift for misinformation, censorship, and pathological nationalism. A slew of governments have introduced a blame-shifting policy by issuing power-rivalry statements based on illogical reasoning and a narrative of national immunity towards COVID-19: in the Western world, there are claims of a Chinese experiment gone wrong, and the most infamous ‘Chinese virus’; Italy has accused African migrants of bringing disease to its shores; in France, Hungary, and the United Kingdom, there is a narrative of a link between immigrants and; European right-wingers declare that the ‘enemy has not changed, it is migrants’. As a result, the convergence of the two crises exacerbates mistrust in scientific, political, and economic institutions around the world. These narratives imply, through a highly nuanced differential discourse, that their countries are immune to coronavirus and would not have contracted or managed COVID-19 effectively if immigrants had not been present.
COVID-19 has provided rich fodder for Europe’s nativist populist tune, inciting the clamor to bar immigrants and close borders, to anti-immigrant policies. The landscape of media, scientific bodies, and government frameworks shape public opinion, and thus such obstinate prejudice and confrontations ignite de-globalization, nationalism, nativism, protectionism, tariffs, closed borders, and the erection of walls, which will exacerbate the COVID-19 pandemic outbreak.
Limiting the negative impact of misinformation epidemics becomes more difficult, especially when partisanship can be mobilized in this effort. There could be three approaches to mitigating these negative effects: (a) prevention strategies – to limit the goal and spread of, or exposure to, misinformation pandemics; (b) corrective strategies – based on scientific and empirical knowledge, to challenge these predispositions, their effects, and subsequent belief system, and reduce uncertainty, increase perceived control, and promote self-image; (c) collaborative strategies – Corrective strategies can be effective if other political and social representatives are activated and mobilized to counteract partisan, ideological, and misinformation tendencies. When politicians and the media spread misinformation, like-minded people are more likely to follow elite cues and motivated reasoning and engage with these ideas. Cues from partisan elites have the potential to inflame and foster misinformation epidemics as they shape the information landscape for the general public. For example, at the beginning of COVID-19, the American political administration referred to the pandemic as a new hoax and compared it to common flu or coronavirus as a bioweapon. This rhetoric is likely to encourage the adoption of similar beliefs, causing like-minded supporters to take the threat less seriously. Media outlets, including news personalities and media figures, questioned whether hospitals were truly overrun with coronavirus-infected patients, casting doubt on the threat of COVID-19. After the toll on human life became increasingly obvious and irrefutable, a shift in the reporting and behavior of media and political leaders who had previously, explicitly, and unequivocally trafficked in misinformation pandemics hinted at the possibility of misinformation serving to correct and prevent negative consequences among the general public.
Potential restriction strategies
As research has predicted, people in self-isolation, social distancing, and quarantine experience psychosocial stress and adverse health outcomes, and this crisis will necessitate intervention from credible sources of information. In the United States, for example, these include the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and, most notably, WHO, which has collaborated with some social media platforms and technological companies like Google, LinkedIn, Microsoft, Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube to promote health updates and combat misinformation and disinformation. They want to protect and ensure effective COVID-19 communication between healthcare systems and the general public. Despite these efforts, the “infodemics” as it’s labelled, persists, with numerous misinformation and disinformation sources circulating on social media accounts. Certain strategies can be implemented to address these disparities: (a) empirically evidence-based scientific research findings with integration in communication and information technology to frontline healthcare providers who communicate with patients, caregivers, and vulnerable populations result in positive health outcomes and subsequent resource optimization; (b) developing strategic partnerships at the local and global levels to coordinate connecting offline and online resources for the communication of uniformed information across all platforms from mass media, community organizations, and support groups to community and society; (c) containing information and disinformation “infodemics” and disseminating scientifically evidence-based information through data-mining algorithms to detect and remove fake news; (d) those who spread misinformation, accountable individuals and online portals, should be identified by local authorities and law enforcement agencies; precautionary culturally tailored information, translated into multiple language manuals of factual data regarding COVID-19 should be promoted through mass media campaigns; and (e) an e-care evidence-based approach and e-services in local languages should be promoted.
During this pandemic, it is critical to bring communities and institutional leadership together to promote transparency and good information governance to control the misinformation epidemics related to COVID-19 for both people’s physical, mental, and psychosocial health as well as sound economic, political, and systemic functioning. The world requires coordinated national and international efforts to apply scientific empirical data in local settings to alleviate the grave situation of lockdown aftereffects and related issues. Through natural language processing and data-mining approaches, the media, healthcare organizations, community-based organizations, and stakeholders should strategically collaborate to disseminate empirically-based public health messages and remove anti-science online content based on mutual consensus. International collaboration – the exchange of scientific ideas, health communication, and facilitating coordination – is the best global solution for the global disease.