Misinformation is a common thread between the COVID-19 and HIV/AIDS pandemics – with deadly consequences
Since health officials confirmed the first COVID-19 cases, misinformation has spread just as quickly as the virus. Social media may have made the amount, variety and speed of misinformation seem unprecedented, but COVID-19 isn’t the first pandemic where false and harmful information has set back public health.
Misinformation altered how people trusted their governments and doctors during the 1918 influenza pandemic. It fueled the 19th century smallpox anti-vaccine movements through some of the same arguments as those currently used against the COVID-19 vaccine.
What sets the COVID-19 pandemic apart, however, is the sheer magnitude of damaging disinformation put in circulation around the world. Data shows that regions and countries where disinformation thrived experienced more lethal pandemic waves despite vaccine availability. In the U.S., for example, viewership of a Fox News program that downplayed the pandemic is associated with increased COVID-19 cases and deaths. Similarly in Romania, disinformation is a contributing factor to the country’s disastrous fourth wave of COVID-19.
The problem of misinformation has been so widespread that it has its own word: “infodemic,” a portmanteau of “information” and “epidemic.” Coined by journalist David Rothkopf during the 2003 SARS outbreak, it describes a situation where “a few facts, mixed with fear, speculation and rumor, are amplified and relayed swiftly worldwide by modern information technologies.”
Infodemics can affect economies, politics, national security and public health. The COVID-19 infodemic became such a problem that the Royal Society and the British Academy released an October 2020 report noting its significant impact on vaccine deployment, endorsing legislation that prosecutes those who spread misinformation.