Covid-19 has significantly disrupted the world as we know it: we have all been impacted to varying degrees by the ever-changing climate of uncertainty that surrounds this pandemic. The phrase “Stop the Spread” applies to more than just coronavirus transmission: as crucial as it is to practice social distancing and good hygiene habits to limit the spread of COVID-19, it is also vital to prevent the spread of misinformation and myths around COVID-19. However, with various media outlets constantly pumping out new information and details on the latest covid-19 statistics, it’s no wonder many of us are at a loss as to what is true, and what is not.
What is misinformation?
Speculation about the nature, characteristics and transmission of COVID-19 has been rife since the outbreak. Particularly in the absence of rigorous scientific research on the virus, which was the case in early 2020 at the pandemic outset. The human brain uses ‘mental shortcuts’ (AKA ‘cognitive biases’ or ‘heuristics’) to assess information from our environment. While these are useful in improving processing, they sometimes come at a cost to our decision-making ability. We are also more likely to make these ‘thinking errors’ when presented with information overload. When confronted with the ‘infodemic’ associated with COVID-19, we are more likely to be susceptible to using heuristics and engaging in flawed thinking, thus drawing inaccurate conclusions. Moreover, the type of heuristic one may use in each moment often depends on the context, the type of (mis)information to be considered, and the interests or beliefs of the individual themselves.
Myths surrounding Covid-19
Types of misinformation vary greatly, including virus origins (e.g., claims that it originated from consuming bat soup, or that it is a weaponised organism manufactured as part of a bio-weapons plot, or a means of controlling the population to implement a ‘cashless society’). Another myth is the nature of the virus (e.g., claims such as the belief that children cannot contract or transmit coronavirus; and the belief that the virus cannot be spread across surfaces). In today’s digital age, misinformation spreads faster than the virus itself and reaches all corners of the globe. As you can imagine, misinformation may cause further harm by influencing safety-related behaviours. For example, believing that coronavirus does not spread on surfaces might reduce hygienic practices such as disinfecting surfaces, which is now a mandatory part of routine environmental cleaning.
What you can do
The limited space of a blog is insufficient to do justice to this important topic. Over the next few weeks, we will aim to provide a summary of other issues we believe are pertinent to coronavirus misinformation, including some of the patterns and trends observed in preliminary research, and a focus on the vaccines currently available in Australia. Until then, we encourage you to consider information in a more critical way by asking questions such as: is the source trustworthy? Are there any vested interests (politically or economically) which may bias the publication? Is it consistent with existing information and/or other news reports? By remaining mindful that not all news is created equally and appraising coronavirus information with such questions, we can all begin to stop the spread of Covid-19 misinformation.
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Disclaimer: The purpose of this blog is to draw your attention to the potential flawed reasoning we may engage in when evaluating information related to the COVID-19 pandemic – we are not here to tell you what you should or should not believe.