The Hidden Pandemic: COVID-19 Misinformation in the Media

by Jason Lo Hog Tian

After welcoming the turn of a new decade, the world woke up to news of an emerging infectious disease that would grow to become the largest outbreak in recent memory. COVID-19 exploded onto the world stage as it spread internationally and prompted worldwide collaboration between doctors, researchers, and health officials to understand this new disease. On March 11th 2020, as the number of cases approached 4 million, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 a pandemic.1 Millions more have been infected since then and with unprecedented lockdown measures being implemented in many countries, the world will surely continue to feel the impact of the pandemic long after COVID-19 is behind us. While only a percentage of the world have experienced having COVID-19, almost everyone has been touched by the fear and anxiety that comes with the emergence of a new infectious disease. Rapid spread and lack of information about the novel coronavirus created the ideal environment for another “pandemic” that may be as widespread and long lasting as the disease itself – one of misinformation in the media.

In December 2019, a patient with a mysterious respiratory disease was reported in Wuhan, a city in the Hubei province in China.2 The WHO later named the disease “coronavirus disease (COVID-19)” and the virus that causes it “severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2)”.3 The virus is named after the projections on their surfaces that form a “corona” which in Latin means “halo” (see Figure 1 for illustration). These projections bind the virus to human cells, allowing the viral DNA to enter. While there are hundreds of coronaviruses, only seven cause human diseases, most notably the SARS outbreak in 2002 in China and the MERS outbreak in 2012 in the Middle East.2

People infected with COVID-19, like with other coronaviruses, commonly have flu-like symptoms including fever, cough, and shortness of breath.2 Most people experience mild symptoms, however COVID-19 has caused many deaths, mostly in those with compromised immune systems.4 While all initial cases had contact with the food market in Wuhan, cases that had no contact quickly appeared, providing evidence for human-to-human transmission of COVID-19. The virus is thought to be transmitted via respiratory droplets from infected persons, although there is still debate on whether airborne transmission is possible.5 Health authorities recommend “social distancing” to combat this method of transmission and many nations have implemented stay-at-home measures to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

There is currently no treatment available for COVID-19 and the focus is on managing symptoms, however there are numerous clinical trials underway. Vaccines are being developed using knowledge from previous coronavirus outbreaks. Researchers are currently focused on using the coronal projections to safely activate an immune response that will protect an individual should they become infected later on.6 However, the development process is lengthy with experts predicting that a vaccine will not be ready before 2021.7 Despite the virus spreading rapidly, 80% of cases are mild and recover completely. Around 5% of cases are critical and experience symptoms such as respiratory failure, septic shock, and multiple organ failure. These critical cases are responsible for most of the deaths with a total mortality rate for COVID-19 around 2-3%.8

It is no surprise that media sources are providing around the clock coverage of such a major world event as it develops, however when an issue is covered as much as COVID-19, it’s hard not to be fearful and anxious of a disease that seems to envelop our collective consciousness. Social media allows anybody to voice their opinion to an audience of thousands or millions which makes it easy for misinformation to spread. Social media sites are littered with crackpot cures, ineffective preventative measures, and conspiracy theories speculating the origin of the virus, some of which can have dangerous implications. One notable example occurred in March 2020 when a document claiming that chloroquine, a malaria drug, was an effective treatment for COVID-19. Major news outlets quickly picked up the story and shortly after, U.S. President Donald Trump as well as Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro endorsed a related drug called hydroxychloroquine as an effective treatment despite a lack of evidence.9 Google then saw a surge of searches for the compound and hospitals reported patients with toxic side effects from pills containing chloroquine.9 This example illustrates how a piece of misinformation can escalate quickly from a single source to widespread global coverage and the potentially dangerous implications this can have.

In the wake of COVID-19, social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube are battling the spread of misinformation on their sites and funneling users towards reputable sources.10 All three platforms even deleted posts from the Brazilian President after his promotion of hydroxychloroquine as a potential treatment on the grounds that it could cause harm.9 However, misinformation is difficult to contain with the sheer volume of online content making it hard to piece together the truth. This is especially worrying when people do not realize or believe that they could be misinformed. One Canadian study showed that over half of the participants surveyed were confident they could “easily distinguish conspiracy theories and misinformation from factual information about COVID-19”.11 The same study showed that approximately half of those who believed that COVID-19 was engineered as a bioweapon in a Chinese lab or that COVID-19 is being spread to cover up harmful effects of exposure to 5G wireless technology said they could easily distinguish between COVID-19 facts and misinformation.11 Like COVID-19 itself, misinformation about COVID-19 is difficult to fight when people do not know they are infected in the first place.

With “fake news” being so prevalent today, it’s easy to forget that media has had a positive effect on the collective knowledge of the world by increasing access to information. Mass media coverage plays a large role in slowing disease spread by informing the public about disease transmission and preventative measures they should take. Media not only keeps the public knowledgeable, but research has shown that it changes behavior, with more news reports being linked with fewer hospital visits and a lower number of new cases.12 While even the most reputable sources can be subject to misinformation and sometimes contradict themselves, this is often a reflection of the scientific process where knowledge is constantly developing and being updated. During the outbreak of a new infectious disease, making informed and responsible decisions becomes even more important and an effective media strategy can educate the public on a scale never seen before.

The COVID-19 pandemic is still evolving and the scope of its impact on society remains unclear. Misinformation in the media will also remain a problem and it’s up to us to navigate the media wisely by remaining skeptical, rational, and unwavering in the pursuit of the truth. Relying on reputable sources is key in preventing you from falling victim to conspiracy theories and accurately measuring the threat to your health. While many of us may feel powerless to help in the fight against COVID-19, we can all do our part in battling the pandemic of COIVD-19 misinformation.


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