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Massive infodemia: contagious hoaxes and lies during the pandemic


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The Conversation

Ignacio López-Goñi

Full Professor of Microbiology, University of Navarra

In parallel with the covid-19 pandemic, a huge amount of hoaxes have been spread, mainly through social media. This phenomenon has reached such a scale that it has the WHO described it as a "massive infodemic".The "other pandemic" of misinformation. He also warned of its dangers, particularly because it prevents the public from accessing reliable information about the disease. Many of these hoaxes were related to scientific and health issues.

At language a distinction is made between disinformationwhich refers to the wilful transmission of falsehoods and hoaxes, and misinformationwhich is when errors are transmitted but unintentionally. We are more concerned about the former. For this reason, a group of researchers from the University of Navarra, group , have just published in PLOS ONE a study on the (intentional) misinformation of health- and science-related hoaxes about covid-19 in Spain.

Science and health, highly susceptible to hoaxes
In the study we analysed a total of 533 hoaxes published on the websites of the three main fact-checking organisations data in Spain(Maldita, Newtral and EFE Verifica). These are the only Spanish organisations certified by the International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN), an entity that evaluates the quality of work of fact-checking organisations worldwide.

The hoaxes were analysed over a period of three months, from 11 March (the day the WHO declared the covid-19 pandemic) to 10 June 2020.

Well, the results show that more than a third of all these hoaxes (187) were related to health and science. Most of them (55%) were transmitted during the first month of the state of alarm, probably because the status we were experiencing was new, the level of uncertainty very high and the lack of information tremendous.

In the study we analysed, among other things, on which subject platform they were distributed (social networks or other), the format (text, photo, video...), the geographical spread (international, national or local), the subject of disinformation (joke, exaggeration, decontextualisation or outright hoax), the subject of source (whether it was real, anonymous or fake) and whether it was related to scientific research, science policy issues or management health. We also looked at hoaxes related to false advice to the public.

The results showed that more than 50% of the science and health hoaxes were distributed via social media. Surprisingly, more than 25% were transmitted via WhatsApp, a messaging service network that until then we had only employee used to communicate quickly with family and friends. Hoaxes also moved via Twitter (12%), Facebook (8%), YouTube (5.5%) and Instagram (2%).

This result is consistent with what we already knew: that the use of social media increased significantly during confinement. Regarding the disinformation subject , more than 60% were genuine hoaxes or hoaxes, 23% were out-of-context claims, 14% were exaggerations and only 1% were jokes (some as tasteless as "Do you want to catch the coronavirus? For only 60 euros we'll infect you").

A third of the hoaxes were related to the scientific research , most of them about the origin of the virus (42%), but also about other topics such as false treatments (25%), vaccines (15%), the mortality rate (5%) or the transmissibility of the virus (5%).

Some of the most curious hoaxes, for example, were: 5G is the manager of the spread of the virus, smoking protects against coronavirus, eating alkaline food cures the disease, sunbathing prevents covid-19, drinking coffee cures the disease, etc.

Accelerated express science
While there were hoaxes without any scientific basis, others were related to research that was still in its early stages or were programs of study preliminary. Sometimes they were due to misinterpretations, readings taken out of context or misinterpretations by staff non-specialists. Others were due to the dissemination ofpreprints that had been made public but not yet reviewed.

Part of the problem has been the need to share results in real time, what we have termed "rushed, express or high-speed science". As recently as late January 2020, the journal Nature published a commentary in which the author was astonished that in less than 20 days after the new Chinese coronavirus was announced, more than 50 scientific papers had been published. Even then, the number was already impressive.

To date, there are more than 240,000 scientific articles on the SARS-CoV-2 virus or covid-19 disease in PubMed, exceeding those listed under the heading of "malaria", for example. The issue of scientific publications during the pandemic, and especially of preprints, has been so large that not only scientists themselves, but also publishers and journals have been overwhelmed.

Covid-19 has been a perfect storm for spreading both misinformation and deliberately false news or hoaxes.

The SARS-CoV-2 artificial origin hoax
An example of the consequences of this "hasty science" was a article proposing that SARS-CoV-2 was an artificially engineered mixture Genetics at laboratory between a coronavirus and the HIV retrovirus that causes AIDS. It was published as a preprint on 30 January 2020 and withdrawn by the authors themselves on 2 February when it was found that there were errors in their bioinformatics analysis and interpretation. However, the article was downloaded more than 1.6 million times and was one of the most commented on social networks, promoting the hoax of the artificial origin of SARS-CoV-2.

Unfortunately, Luc Montagnier, award Nobel Prize in Medicine in 2008 for having co-discovered the HIV virus, echoed this hoax. It is worth recalling here that, in recent years, the prestige of this researcher has been overshadowed by his support for the anti-vaccine and homeopathic medicine movements.

This case can be related to the problem of what we call "extended authority". This is what it is called when real or even fictitious characters, with the excuse of their authority, dedicate themselves to transmitting falsehoods and become source a very serious source of disinformation, endangering the health of many people. Doctors or biologists "for the truth" are an example of this.

We have never had so much scientific knowledge and so much technical capacity to deal with a pandemic as we have at the moment. But science needs rest, time, repeating experiments, others confirming the same results and scientists evaluating others. Scientific work is sometimes not compatible with the immediacy of the news.

The hydroxychloroquine scandal
Perhaps the most scandalous case has been that of hydroxychloroquine. Preliminary programs of study had shown that this compound was able to inhibit the multiplication of SARS-CoV-2 in vitro in cell cultures at laboratory.

These results made hydroxychloroquine one of the first antivirals to be tested against the most severe cases of covid-19. A famous (and also peculiar) French microbiologist, Didier Raoult, advisor of the French government in the fight against the pandemic, quickly published that this compound was effective in humans against the coronavirus.

The WHO listed hydroxychloroquine on the Solidaridad clinical essay . However, some scientists criticised Raoult's work and warned of possible side effects and of not having found significant benefits in patients. Raoult himself denounced a plot and accused the French scientific committee and the American laboratory Gilead of holding back the use of hydroxychloroquine, which, as a cheap remedy available , was not very lucrative for big pharma.

The issue was further muddied when US President Donald Trump revealed on press conference that he was taking hydroxychloroquine to prevent the coronavirus. The consequence of this eccentricity was that, in some places, there was a shortage of the product, so that some sick people who really needed it had trouble getting it. The efficacy of hydroxychloroquine became a political issue, with some in favour and others against, on ideological rather than scientific grounds.

To complicate matters further, a article published in one of the most prestigious biomedical journals, The Lancet, warned that hydroxychloroquine was not only useless but was linked to serious adverse effects and an increased risk of death.

The work was not experimental, the authors relied on statistical data of more than 96,000 patients from 671 hospitals worldwide. Based on this study, the WHO decided to fail the employment of hydroxychloroquine. However, a group of 120 scientists from 24 countries subsequently challenged these results and carefully analysed the data published in The Lancet, which proved to be unreliable. It was confirmed that the work was a fraud and that some of the authors had even been denounced for misleading internship before. The Lancet had to withdraw article two weeks after its publication and this event was dubbed #TheLancetGate.

Science has moved at high speed, but fortunately the rectifications have also been swift: the journal withdrew the controversial article on hydroxychloroquine in just two weeks.

How to detect and avoid a hoax
To make it easier to detect disinformation, we have created a "guide to avoid disinformation in health" on project RRSS Salud.

Some basic ideas are:

→ Analyse the source: look for the source of the information and compare it with other alternative sources on the same topic or news item. Be wary of information if it is anonymous, lacks external references or does not specifically and explicitly identify them.

Analyse style and content: be wary of sensationalist or alarmist headlines, but also of out-of-context images or videos.

Analyse the argumentation: be wary of information with non-existent, weak, incomplete or contradictory argumentation, and if there is false evidence or errors.

Analyse ideological biases: be aware that information may have ideological biases, in favour or against certain political, economic, social, etc. approaches.

Analyse how the dissemination has been done: automated distribution of information is sometimes also used to spread disinformation, so you should be wary of suspicious disseminations. Be wary of social media and messaging networks.

This article was originally published in The Conversation. Read the original.The Conversation