COVID-19 has proven to be not only a healthcare challenge for the global community but also a disease provoking a plethora of conspiracies and false claims. Due to the fact that infection rates are growing exponentially, it has become a serious threat to human health. Apart from the infection, rumors and misinformation are spreading just as rapidly since “the pandemic of social media panic travels faster than the COVID-19 outbreak” (Depoux et al., 2020, p. 1). Regardless, it is essential to have access to information about the virus, number of cases, ways of protecting oneself from being infected, and new scientific research. This accessibility guarantees emotional preparedness to the possible outcomes and undermines the harmful effect of spreading panic. This essay will discuss whether online dissemination of COVID-19 information is veritable, efficient, and expedient and if its preventive effect outweighs the harm caused by the panic spread.
The preventative effect of disseminating COVID-19 information online outweighs the harm caused by the potential panic spread. On the one hand, posting information about COVID-19, the rates of infection spreading, and ways of preventing it can cause panic and unrest among the general population. This issue is especially relevant for people with mental health illnesses, such as anxiety or obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) (Rosenberg et al., 2020). OCD, in particular, prompts people to have compulsions, such as washing hands too often, which can be anxiety-provoking. In this case, recommendations regarding COVID-19 can cause even more distress and panic for these individuals. However, if the rest of the population without OCD is unaware of the positive effects of handwashing, the risk of many people being infected increases.
The people that see this information about COVID-19 will be alarmed and will be cautious about the everyday actions that may put them under the risk of getting COVID-19. An example of this is the information about the factors that may lead to significant comorbidities with this disease – age and chronic conditions (Rosenberg et al., 2020). Knowing this, people in the risk group will stay alarmed, limit their contacts with others, and pay more attention to their health. Therefore, it is apparent that dissemination of information about COVID-19 may be harmful to a portion of the population, but far more people will benefit from having reliable information.
Social media networks, a source of news for many people, employ algorithms and strategies to delete and detect false information and provide people with access to reliable sources. According to Merchant and Lurie (2020), “Facebook is using the news feed function to direct users to the WHO website and websites of local health authorities” (para. 1). Facebook ensures that reliable sources of COVID-19 information, such as the WHO website, are more visible. Based on their actions, one can assume that social media platforms understand their responsibility and put efforts towards minimizing the unreliable information spread. Thus, it is true that an issue of false information on social media exists, which may lead to people panicking or using protection methods that do not work. However, social media site owners have taken responsibility for ensuring that people get access to reliable information.
Reliable data is spread across social media more quickly when compared to false information limited to small communities. Chan et al. (2020) conducted an experiment through WeChat and Twitter and found that reliable scientific data was disseminated faster than false information. Moreover, it was shared faster in different languages, since the reporters cite that scientific research was translated into thirteen languages. The benefit of social media use becomes apparent with this example – the global dissemination of reliable COVID-19 data can be done faster when social media is used. Therefore, although unreliable information about COVID-19 can be found in digital media, the amount of useful and reliable information is greater, meaning that people can be better inflamed by finding it. Moreover, the nature of social media allows one to share reliable information with the global community to ensure that people around the world are updated on the COVID-19.
The amount of misinformation is less significant when compared to the beneficial and reliable messages about COVID-19. Similarly to Chang et al. (2020), Kouzy et al. (2020) analyzed 673 Twitter messages about COVID-19 to compare the number of reliable and unreliable sources used. 81.4% of the tweets contained reliable information, only about 20% were misleading, and the rest focused on the financial and public policy problems connected to COVID-19. Kouzy et al. (2020) also proved the importance of using reliable and verified sources since individual or group accounts that were not verified by Twitter contained more misinformation. As a result, although Twitter users are exposed to some misinformation about this disease, they can easily check the reliability of the source and receive information from peer-reviewed courses or healthcare institutions.
COVID-19 caused a plethora of social issues, apart from the harm to the people’s health, that can be addressed by informing society. Depoux et al. (2020) highlight several issues that arose after COVID-19 spread – racism, fearmongering rumors, conspiracy theories, and mass purchases of produce and facemasks. For example, people began buying facemasks as one of the only protection means. This caused a shortage of protective equipment, putting the medical personnel at risk (Depoux et al., 2020). However, the shortage was swiftly addressed, and the adequate message spread by healthcare organizations led to people sewing their facemask and using at-home materials. The positive aspect is the fact that many people became aware of the danger and the protection equipment – facemasks, which, without the help of social media, would be impossible. Moreover, the issue of racism was addressed through digital media and social media.
Another aspect of the comparison between the harm and benefit of COVID-19 related information is the fact that this disease spreads quickly. Millions of people were infected within months, and the global community was unprepared to face such serious healthcare challenges. COVID-19 is a unique challenge; hence, the traditional means of informing the general public and ensuring public safety cannot address it effectively. Limaye et al. (2020) state that “COVID-19 is spreading across a highly connected world, in which virtually all individuals are linked to each other through the mobile phone in their pockets” (p. 277). Moreover, social distancing measures restrict people’s ability to communicate, which means that they go online to talk to friends and family members. Therefore, COVID-19 is different from other epidemics and requires new means of disseminating information.
If healthcare organizations and public officials chose not to discuss COVID-19 online to reduce the harm caused by panic, people would only be exposed to false information. Since people spend more time at home, they go on social media on digital newspapers’ websites to find the latest news (Limaye et al., 2020). Considering that some communities and individuals choose to spread false messages about COVID-19, conspiracy theories, and unauthorized methods of treatment, the danger of being exposed to these claims is high. Without counteraction — verified and checked information disseminated by public healthcare officials, international healthcare organizations, and other institutions, people would use unreliable and potential ways of protecting themselves from the virus. Therefore, there is a real danger and potential harm from misinformation about COVID-19, and without counteraction, people would have difficulty distinguishing the truth from false claims.
Spreading information about the virus and actions, one has to take to protect themselves increases public awareness. The regulations that require people to wear a mask when entering buildings, shops, and other facilities have already caused some tensions with some people refusing to abide (Rosenberg et al., 2020). Without the rapid dissemination of information regarding the usefulness of masks, the counteraction against these regulations would be even bigger. Merchant and Lurie (2020) compare COVID-19 to the influenza of 1918 and state that at that time, “information exchange that could facilitate any public health intervention primarily occurred by telephone, mail, or person-to-person interaction” (p. 1). As a result, approximately fifty million people died from the disease. With COVID-19, the global community has an advantage – the ability to share information quickly and take precautions to avoid being infected.
One counterclaim is the issue of false information being shared by reliable sources of information. This problem is especially apparent in the United States, where government officials have failed to only use information that has been verified by scientists. For example, President Donald Trump’s claim regarding the “touting the combination of hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin… turned out to be a falsehood” (Rosenberg, 2020, p. 2). However, several respected medical institutions used this combination of drugs to treat COVID-19 patients. Later on, researchers have proven that these medications have no significant impact on COVID-19 patients. Moreover, the harmful effect of hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin outweigh the minimal benefit it can provide. As a result, information from a reliable source has caused confusion and inadequate treatment practices.
Political figures, typically are respected and can serve as sources of information, are not qualified to be the sources of health-related and scientific information. It is evident that medial institutions, which used hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin, should have checked the peer-reviewed research and recommendations from healthcare authorities before using this information. As President Donald Trump has no medical background, his claims relating to the medical aspects of COVID-19 should not be taken seriously, especially by respected institutions. Information about COVID-19 should be verified through peer-reviewed research.
Overall, the benefits of disseminating information about COVID-19 significantly outweigh the potential harm. Social media has become a source of information for many, especially during the lockdown, when these platforms are used more often to communicate with friends and family members. Facebook implemented an algorithm that directs users to a reliable COVID-19 information resource. Analysis of Twitter and WeChat interactions revealed that these digital media allow disseminating information quickly, and it is translated into thirteen languages, aiding the global community in getting the lasted updates on the disease. One issue with this approach is the example of President Donald Trump recommending to use a combination of drugs that the scientists did not test at that time. However, politicians are not a reliable source of information on healthcare-related issues.
Chan, A. K. M., Nickson, C. P., Rudolph, J. W., Lee, A., & Joynt Kraut, G. M. (2020). Social media for rapid knowledge dissemination: early experience from the COVID‐19 pandemic, Anaesthesia, 1-10. Web.
Depoux, A., Martin, S., Karafillakis, E., Preet, R., Wilder-Smith, A., & Larson, H. (2020). The pandemic of social media panic travels faster than the COVID-19 outbreak, Journal of Travel Medicine, 27(3), 1-10. Web.
Kouzy, R., Jaoude, J. A., Kraitem, A., El Alam, M. B., Karam, B., Adib, E., Zarka, J., Traboulsi, C., Akl, E. W., & Baddour, K. (2020). Coronavirus goes viral: Quantifying the COVID-19 misinformation epidemic on Twitter, Cureus, 12(3), 2-14. Web.
Limaye, R. J., Sauer, M., Ali, J., Bernstein, J., Wahl, B., Barnhill, A., & Labrique, A. (2020). Building trust while influencing online COVID-19 content in the social media world. The Lancet of Digital Health. 2(6), 277–278, Web.
Merchant, R. M., & Lurie, N. (2020). Social media and emergency preparedness in response to novel coronavirus. JAMA, 5-7. Web.
Rosenberg, H., Syed, S., & Rezaie, S. (2020). The twitter pandemic: The critical role of twitter in the dissemination of medical information and misinformation during the COVID-19 Pandemic. CJEM, 1–7. Web.