Misinformation During A Global Pandemic.

September 13, 2021
Editor(s): Melanie Suriarachchi
Writer(s): Philip Phung, Laurel Chen, Amy Soodi

A major anti-lockdown protest has been planned to take place in Melbourne on the 18th of September, promoting ‘no more lockdowns’ and ‘no vaccine mandates’. Whilst the number of Covid-19 cases in Victoria show a steep upward trend from the beginning of September, the upcoming protest presents an attitude towards the pandemic that is opposite to what government officials and most medical experts advise and endorse. A potential reason for this phenomenon is misinformation surrounding vaccination and the Covid-19 virus. Common misconceptions include the beliefs that vaccination leads to female infertility, and that natural immunity from previous Covid-19 infection provides better protection than vaccines. Despite being disproved by medical professionals, similar misinformation remains ubiquitous and is constantly being spread throughout traditional and social media outlets.

Melbourne Lockdown Protesters.
Source: France 24.

Misinformation, Susceptibility, and Accessibility

Misinformation has become accessible more than ever, especially during the Covid-19 pandemic. With the rise of social media usage in the past year, owing to the increased number of individuals staying at home for Covid-19 related reasons, individuals of different backgrounds and cultures are looking to these services for a multitude of reasons: to communicate with loved ones, to entertain themselves, and to read about the latest news regarding Covid-19. However, not all news is real news. 

Many posts on social media are spreading misinformation, distracting members of the public from posts that contain scientifically backed-up recommendations regarding Covid-19. This is harmful for those who are susceptible to believing in these fallacies, especially those who have Covid-19 or know someone that does. Social media influencers such as Joe Rogan and Alex Jones who both reach millions across the world have been accused of Covid-19 misinformation. Rogan, in particular, contracted Covid-19 in September 2021, and later posted a video stating that he had taken a cocktail of drugs, including the drug Ivermectin, a medication that is usually used to treat parasite infestations. This drug has not yet been proven to be an effective method of treatment for Covid-19, and may potentially place many viewers of Rogan in great risk. Jones, on the other hand, is best known as a prominent conspiracy theorist who among other things has claimed that the majority of frogs in America are now gay. In early 2020, he received a cease and desist letter from New York’s attorney general demanding he stop hawking phony coronavirus treatments.

Popular Podcast Host Joe Rogan Uses Ivermectin To Treat Covid-19.
Source: TechCrunch.

It should be acknowledged that social media is just one stream where misinformation thrives. Other forms of media such as television and radio are not completely insulated from the rise of misinformation. In the United States and Australia, lockdown rumours and lack of clarity from the government resulted in household panic and the over purchasing of many goods, especially toilet paper. Within Nigeria, a TV report stated that chloroquine, a drug made to treat malaria, was also effective to treat Covid-19, despite the fact it is not. This report led to individuals using chloroquine as a treatment at home. Perhaps it is then not surprising that trust in Covid-19 news has fallen since the pandemic started: from a 53% peak, to a current 43% in 2021. As stated in the report by the University of Canberra, “concern about misinformation remains high”, meaning that whilst there are plenty of people who are believing in misinformation, there are also many that do not. 

One sector of media which has grown within the last few years is the intersection of contemporary news and social media. In particular, Sky News Australia, a channel that is only accessible in Australia via cable service Foxtel, is now more accessible via their YouTube channel. In 2021, YouTube deleted 23 of their videos, citing that the videos contained “misinformation” regarding the Covid-19 pandemic within Australia. Many of these videos contained anti-vaccine sentiment, from both guests and reporters. Additionally, the channel was slapped with a seven day ban from YouTube after repeatedly breaching Covid-19 medical misinformation policies.

While intuition would lead us to believe that a more punitive approach is the best way to combat deceptive content, this inevitably leads to cries of censorship from the offenders, with conservative Sky News Australia commentator Andrew Bolt labelling the ban as “suspicious censorship”. Indeed, it appears that the ban has done little to curb Sky News Australia’s growth and reach, with the outlet enjoying continued weekly view count growth throughout the hiatus, an indication that censoring content can in fact draw more attention to it.

Sky News Australia YouTube Statistics
Source: Social Blade

Australia among other countries now finds itself in a dilemma, where the increased accessibility of this information, alongside guests and reporters who are relatively prominent members of society, contributes to a rise in susceptibility towards Covid-19 misinformation during this pandemic. 

Traditional Media

As vaccination programmes start taking place in numerous countries, traditional media has been playing a critical role in informing the public of the potential risks associated with vaccination and guiding people’s decisions during the pandemic. However, often the lack of contextualisation when addressing related side effects, along with misinformation published by news outlets, have contributed to public hesitancy in vaccination, slowing down recovery from the pandemic. 

During the winter of 2014/2015 in Italy, the reporting of a small number of deaths after taking influenza vaccines led to a 10% drop in vaccination among people aged above 65 when compared to the previous season, despite the deaths later being confirmed to be unrelated to vaccination. This demonstrates the direct influence mainstream media has on the decision-making of individuals, as well as its impact on the effectiveness of public health policies. When reporting the death of Genene Norris, a 48-year-old AstraZeneca vaccine recipient in Australia, some media outlets chose to leave out information regarding her severe underlying chronic disease issues, as well as her ‘atypical presentation of blood clotting following her first dose of the vaccine. By selectively reporting negative outcomes of vaccination without appropriate context, the media not only exaggerates the possibility of vaccine side effects, but also neglects the greater danger of spreading the Covid-19 virus as a result of insufficient vaccination coverage. In fact, one of the main reasons for vaccine hesitancy within Australia is the belief that symptoms of Covid-19 are not severe enough to justify the risks of vaccination. Therefore, exclusively focusing and exaggerating the adverse results of vaccination would not only challenge people’s confidence in public health policies, but also endorse confirmation bias of vaccine sceptics and strengthen their pre-existing perceptions.

Additionally, another factor that feeds into vaccine hesitancy is the spread of misinformation by news outlets. This is especially common among local news outlets, where there are less employees and resources available to publish original journalism. They rely on repurposable online material that sometimes includes inaccurate information, and misinformation is often undetected due to their lack of employees. In addition, with 92% of Australians perceiving medical experts as trustworthy, news outlets are able to exploit the public’s trust by having ‘experts’ advocating false information. There have been several cases in the U.S. where doctors have had their articles published by local newspapers or appear as guest experts in local radio shows, in which they spread vaccine misinformation and anti-vaccine beliefs. This issue is exacerbated with the ‘trading up the chain effect’, as news stories from smaller news outlets are pitched to national news platforms, with the assurance that these stories have been covered by other ‘trustworthy’ sources. In this way, misinformation ends up sneaking into authoritative news sources, making it even more challenging to identify and prevent its spread.

How the Infodemic is Fuelling the Pandemic

Amidst the most ambitious vaccine rollout the world has ever seen, the ‘infodemic’ of misinformation remains an urgent threat to global health according to the World Health Organisation.  Vaccine hesitancy has been directly linked to online disinformation campaigns with a recent study finding exposure to online misinformation significantly reduces vaccination intent.

As the Delta Variant of Covid-19 increases the death toll and devastates the nation, our community is being rocked harder by the biggest wave of misinformation Australia has ever seen.

“Information Contagion: The Infectious Nature of Misinformation in a Pandemic”.
Source: Novetta.

Big tech blatantly shoulders much of the blame. Social media platforms have aspired to achieve nothing more than the bare minimum to combat the spread of false and misleading information. The current approach of tagging and removing misinformation has been weak. It has failed to account for the well established network of conspiracy theorists and online influencers that exaggerate and distort vaccine risks. In particular, twelve of the biggest anti-vaccine influencers as identified by the Centre for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH) still maintain a significant following on social media. The CCDH report calls this group of individuals the ‘Disinformation Dozen’ and attributes up to 65% of anti-vaccine content to them.

The reluctance of platforms to remove social media influencers is an extensive failing that has endangered the safety of our community. In July, the U.S. Surgeon General Issued an Advisory calling for social media companies to take more responsibility. So far, the efforts taken by platforms to dismantle misinformation have been “too little, too late and still don’t go far enough”.

Moving Forward

Whilst the Chief Medical Officer’s call for vaccination incentives have generally been well received, we cannot rely on this approach alone. Solutions for vaccine hesitancy should be tailored to target the specific causes.

To address vaccine hesitancy caused by social media, the known sources of misinformation including the ‘disinformation dozen’ need to be removed from social media platforms. Professor of Responsible Artificial Information, Anjana Susaria advocates for more transparency about medical misinformation,

Facebook claims that it has taken down 18 million pieces of coronavirus misinformation. However, the company doesn’t share data about misinformation on its platforms. Researchers and policymakers don’t know how much vaccine-related misinformation is on the platforms and how many people are seeing and sharing misinformation.”

This data is crucial to help researchers find better ways of combating misinformation. Hope for the global recovery of Covid-19 depends on how many individuals are willing to get the vaccine. It’s essential for big tech to punch a hole in the lifeboat it has granted to disseminators of misinformation.

Whilst the concept of ‘fake news’ has existed since the 17th century, where English Polymath Thomas Browne discusses it in detail in Pseudodoxia Epidemica, it has not until recently, where such misinformation is widespread at a truly global level. With a global pandemic forcing many to delve into the digital world, one must remain vigilant and sceptical of any information regarding Covid-19 presented, whether it is from contemporary or social media.

The CAINZ Digest is published by CAINZ, a student society affiliated with the Faculty of Business at the University of Melbourne. Opinions published are not necessarily those of the publishers, printers or editors. CAINZ and the University of Melbourne do not accept any responsibility for the accuracy of information contained in the publication.

Meet our authors:

Melanie Suriarachchi
Philip Phung
Laurel Chen
Amy Soodi

I'm a Bachelor of Commerce student in my final year majoring in Finance and Management. My key interests are in public policy, regulation and inequality. As a writer at Cainz, I hope to produce pertinent pieces of work that will help people think critically about the pressing issues of our time.