The COVID-19 pandemic has created an unprecedented crisis throughout the global population. Western social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, as well as their Chinese counterparts (such as WeChat and Weibo) are at the heart of this crisis. These platforms can act as multipliers and facilitators of COVID-19 related misinformation. This perpetration of misinformation encompasses outbreak response and increases confusion of what sources to trust. It also generates fear due to unsupported rumours, while simultaneously promoting bigoted and xenophobic forms of digital vigilantism and incrimination.
Rumours circulated on social media has been a primary pervasive form of misinformation during this crisis. One popular social media theory circulated on social media stated that the virus was developed as a means to wage a biological war against China. In China, a rumour was started on their social media platforms that bioweapons research in a Wuhan laboratory resulted in the genetic engineering of COVID-19 that was then released. Such rumours have made it difficult for West and Chinese scientists to collaborate and develop a vaccine for the virus together. Dubious, exaggerated and untrue medical claims and hoaxes have also been widely circulated on social media platforms during this time. Various unproven traditional and natural remedies were suggested as cures to both COVID-19 and Ebola. One of them that was particularly popular in Iran via Twitter, was that drinks that contained mint and spices like turmeric or saffron could help cure these viruses.
This pandemic has also caused us to live in a post-truth society—one where subjective truths and unverified opinions rival hard scientific facts in the public sphere. The need for evidence to support arguments is no longer an urgency, while social norms for holding people accountable for what they say is weakened. This leads to scientists and other experts losing legitimacy in the eyes of the public because what they say is no longer valid. The impact of social media misinformation during such a crisis can be even more pronounced because of a phenomenon called ‘confirmation bias’—the tendency to accept statements that reinforce our established views and downplay those that are contrary to them.
However, in this digital age we cannot completely forego social media because it is still the centre of most breaking news. Misinformation via social media can be reduced after developing coordinated global response strategies. Social media platforms should be at the heart of these strategies, as their response and willingness to cooperate with the government and authorities will determine whether social media is viewed as a beneficial or detrimental route to this pandemic response. Right now, it’s imperative to create mechanisms and policies that address the digital information and curtail the spread of misinformation about such viruses. Without this, efforts to curtail COVID-19 will be hindered by panic and confusion at a time when the world need to come together in solidarity to put a stop to this pandemic.