COVID-19: How Fake News Could Help Spread the Coronavirus

The proliferation of fake news could be exacerbating disease outbreaks like the new coronavirus, say scientists—while efforts to tackle the spread of misinformation has the potential to save lives.

Fake news is "manufactured with no respect for accuracy," explain researchers from the University of East Anglia (UEA) in the U.K. It is fiction disguised as fact and often features "emotive or conspiracy-framed narratives."

It is also exceedingly popular—by some measurements, around half of the U.S. population endorses one or more health-based conspiracy theories. Social media users are also far more likely to share fake news and pseudoscience than medical information from legitimate health authorities, the researchers found.

In two studies, one in Transactions of the Society for Modelling and Simulation International and one in Revue-Depidemiologie-Et-De-Sante-Publique, scientists investigated how the spread of fake news could spread infectious disease, with influenza, monkeypox and the norovirus used as case studies. However, they say the same information could be applied to the COVID-19 coronavirus.

The studies' authors used computer simulations and real-world data on disease virality, human behavior and disease incubation periods and recovery times, as well as data social media posting and information sharing. This allowed them to compare how different levels of fake news affected the success of the virus to multiply in virtual populations.

In the first study, looking at influenza, monkeypox and the norovirus, they found that they could mitigate the effect of fake news by reducing levels a small amount, from 50 percent of all information circulating to 40 percent. The same effect was observed by making one-fifth of the population "immune" to the effects of misinformation.

In the second, by reducing bad advice to 30 percent of the total amount of information circulated—or making 30 percent of people immune to its influence—they were able to counteract the negative effect of fake news related to the norovirus. And yet, even if 90 percent of news circulating was good (or true), the misinformation that was present was pernicious enough to still have an effect on disease spread, they found.

In some, it doesn't take a lot of bad advice to increase the spread of infectious disease.

In real-life, the implications of fake news is felt in the rise of the anti-vax movement—despite no scientific link between the MMR jab and autism—and a steep rise in measles across the world.

It was also observed in individuals' decisions to ignore quarantine or avoid contact with others during outbreaks of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in 2003 and the Norovirus. And it could be having an effect now, during the COVID-19 coronavirus.

Co-author Dr. Julii Brainard, from UEA's Norwich Medical School, told Newsweek the simplest examples relevant to the current COVID-19 outbreak could be delays in seeking health care.

"If you believe that coronavirus is just the same as influenza—and is being overhyped just to make vaccine companies rich—why would you seek help when your symptoms start?" she explained. "More dramatically, you might not bother washing your hands or avoiding other people's sneezes if you truly believe that germs don't cause disease but rather environmental pollution is what makes people sick—so simple "clean living" could protect you from so-called germs. Yes, that theory is around."

A more pernicious version of this could be delaying help because of stigmas associated with the disease.

"If you think COVID-19 is related to unhygienic eating practices, then maybe you don't want to be associated with those 'dirty' people who get sick from COVID-19," she said.

Brainard believes the reason fake news stories are so popular comes down to social status and a love of a good tale. They can be entertaining and satisfy our need to divulge news and share gossip. In other words, humans are "programmed" to find these stories appealing.

"Promoting conspiracy theories is thought to raise the social status of the promoters: they become holders of special information," she said. "Sharing and indulging in conspiracy theories can give someone a tribe to belong to."

While it is likely we have always had these affinities, the growth of social media has amplified our ability to share and spread fake news, as well as created a new way to monetize the process on a large scale.

"A great way to make a boring story into something exciting that people will want to think about and maybe share with others, is to fictionalize it—change or make up a few facts to make the story seem more relevant to our daily concerns, and even just surprising," said Brainard. "Social media makes it very easy to share lots of information quickly."

The studies highlight concerns that the spread of misinformation could encourage risky behavior that helps the disease spread, from not washing hands to sharing food with people who may be symptomatic.

It also suggests that there are effective ways to tackle the problem—provide better, more persuasive and, most importantly, correct counter-information; impose taxes on profits of products sold using misinformation; improve regulation of fake news; drown out the bad with good advice; and improve education to "immunize" the public against fake news.

The researchers call for real-world tests in natural settings to find out what is the best way to tackle the problem of misinformation and fake news.

"Something interesting and maybe comforting is that when presented with a real threat—such as an actual measles outbreak in one's own community—many people suspend their support for poor quality information and will willingly follow official advice," said Brainard. In this case, making sure their children get their measles jabs.

Passenger wears mask on subway
A new study links fake news to the spread of infectious disease like COVID-19 coronavirus. A subway passenger wearing a protective facemask sleeps on a train in Shanghai on February 14, 2020. NOEL CELIS / AFP/Getty
COVID-19: How Fake News Could Help Spread the Coronavirus | Health