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Dangers of ‘fake news’ during the Covid-19 pandemic

By Irish Pharmacist - 30th Nov 2020

Coronavirus or Covid-19 outbreak News Update background concept. Mockup mobile phone Coronavirus News with facial masks. Flat lay top view with copy space.

New research from University College Cork has highlighted the dangers of misinformation in relation to the Covid-19 ‘infodemic’.

The research, which has been published in the British Medical Journal, was carried out by Dr Cathal O’Connor, dermatology specialist registrar, and Dr Michelle Murphy, consultant dermatologist, who are both based at South Infirmary Victoria University Hospital. The results highlighted and scientifically rebutted dangerous misinformation that has been circulating online.

The research looked at a number of false messages circulating in Cork and across Ireland in the early days of the pandemic and analysed common trends which led to incorrect information about Covid-19 spreading rapidly via social media and messaging applications.

The results found that false messages tend to contain three common features: A claim that the source has inside information; an alarmist tone and vague details about the source of the information; and emotive effect that is intended to trigger panic in the reader and induce fear.

Misinformation has predominantly centred around four key themes: Food and beverages as ‘cures’; hygiene practices; medicines; and Government responses. The research drew on one example which circulated on WhatsApp, whereby a message incorrectly stated that “four healthy young people were in a serious condition with coronavirus” in Cork following ingestion of ibuprofen.

Commenting on the research findings, Dr O’Connor said: “We have seen the implications of these fake messages in clinical practice in Cork. Over the past few months, we have encountered patients who are hesitant to take ibuprofen due to rumours that were circulating in the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Other patients with serious time-sensitive non-Covid-19 illnesses, such as stroke, have had delayed presentations, becoming critically unwell due to concerns about contracting Covid-19 in hospital.”

Writing in the BMJ, Dr O’Connor and Dr Murphy highlighted the need for healthcare practitioners to confront fake news internationally, drawing on medical stories which spread across Ireland early in the pandemic, which were later proven to be incorrect.

Dr Murphy said: “False information in circulation in Ireland in recent times has detracted from the evidence-based precautions that the health service is promoting, such as social distancing and hand hygiene. Interestingly, our research found that false messages predominantly compromised of texts, but voice notes became increasingly popular, with local accents added to increase credibility. Going forward, we encourage international colleagues to support each other in combating fake information as part of the fight against Covid-19.”

Dr O’Connor added: “There is a need to stop the spread of false information by refuting or rebutting misleading health information on social media and by providing appropriate sources to accompany any refutation.”

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