With the constant influx of information surrounding COVID-19, the proliferation of medical misinformation has emerged as an unfortunate consequence. From false cures to conspiracy theories, medical misinformation is rampant and multifaceted. The rise of social media and variety of popular messaging platforms such as WhatsApp, Twitter, Facebook, and now even TikTok, have made it easier than ever to drive the spread of potentially dubious information through far-reaching mediums.
This doesn’t pair well with the heightened levels of public fear and curiosity to learn more about COVID-19. The spread of misinformation not only hinders the work of public health professionals but also can present novel challenges to the medical community as a whole.
Although major companies like Google, Reddit, Facebook, and Twitter are seeking to stop the spread of misinformation by removing misleading articles, elevating genuine content, and partnering with public health authorities to share critical information, there’s simply too much misleading content circulating for them to promptly identify and flag or remove all of it.
When we share articles or links we come across without properly vetting them, we can unknowingly expose our networks to falsehoods, conspiracy theories or even hazardous medical advice regarding COVID-19.
As medical students and health care professionals, we have the unique opportunity to identify and prevent the spread of medical misinformation. By cultivating the following habits, we can all stay better informed about the latest COVID-19 developments while contributing to the greater public health effort to share science-backed, evidence-based information.
1. Examine the source of the information.
Analyzing an article’s source should be the first step before extracting any information or disseminating it to others. In a time of frenzy and panic where people are hungry to learn more, this can often be easily overlooked.
Check to see if the article references peer-reviewed or scholarly citations such as scientific journal articles or government sources. Consider if the sources cited are reputable, peer-reviewed medical journals or books.
If the findings are extracted from a published clinical trial or from a government website, this can generally be a good indication that they have been tested and proven to some extent. Articles reporting on the unpublished results of clinical trials or studies—we are seeing a lot of these as news organizations rush to share potentially game-changing new information about COVID-19—should note that the results have yet to be peer-reviewed.
2. Check the publication date of the article/source.
What we know about COVID-19 is constantly evolving. We have seen how the emergence of novel scientific evidence translates into policy changes at the public health level. One example of this is the shifting guidelines regarding the use of face masks this spring.
The majority of modeling pertaining to growth rates and transmission is also based on scientific assumptions and is always subject to change.
Facts and current knowledge can change rapidly in the face of advancements in research. Thus, it is crucial to check when the article/source was published and whether there have been any revisions or updates to it since then.
3. Consult government sources
During this pandemic, government agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Department of Health & Human Services (HHS) as well as state and county health departments have been valuable resources of disseminating information about COVID-19. The websites and social media accounts of these sources provide trustworthy public health updates and prevention guidelines.
The World Health Organization (WHO) also provides a worldwide information network for the public through its platform EPI-WIN: WHO Information Network for Epidemics. This resource provides crucial advice for the public and debunks myths that may emerge on social media and other news sources.
State and local public health and government sources can also help us stay informed about social distancing orders, stay-at-home orders and policies regarding nonessential businesses in our communities.
4. Learn about the basics of COVID-19
Before delving into news articles and scholarly research about the pandemic, take the time to learn the basics regarding COVID-19. What are the common symptoms? How is it transmitted? Which regions have been impacted the most?
Knowing these key basic facts can help us identify relevant content and allows us to better understand the impact of developments and updates as they are released. Much of this info is available on the CDC’s COVID-19 page.
5. Be critical and curious
Scroll through your social media and news feeds with a critical eye. Many times, we may unconsciously scroll past dubious headlines and articles without really processing the veracity of the content.
Although we may not make a conscious effort to recognize this in the moment, it may influence how we perceive other content we review in the future. That’s why it’s important to be critical and judgmental when reading any content about COVID-19. Ask yourself: Does the article make sense? Does the information align with other sources?
6. Share and elevate high-quality content
Given the complex algorithms of social media sites, false news articles can easily rise to the top of the newsfeed and gain rapid popularity through shares, retweets, or interaction. Therefore, it is important to share and help elevate high-quality and reputable content so it can gain more visibility and thus reduce the presence of potentially deceptive content.
Fostering digital health literacy
The COVID-19 pandemic reminds us of the importance of digital health literacy as virtually every social media platform has been contaminated with fabricated news or evidence. In these uncertain times, it is important to carefully scrutinize and evaluate the source of information prior to sharing it with others and extracting advice from potentially dangerous sources.
As medical students and health care professionals, we’re well-equipped to point others to trusted sources of medical information, promote the spread of truthful information and amplify the efforts of the public health community. By educating others and pointing them to trusted sources of health information, we can help flatten the curve of both medical misinformation and the spread of COVID-19.