AN INFODEMIC OF MISINFORMATION
One adverse side effect of pandemics is the corresponding outbreak of misinformation and scams, the latter both medical and financial. They are as inevitable as, well, the pandemics themselves.
The spread of misinformation, intentional or not, has been rampant during the COVID-19 pandemic.
A Brookings Institution study in late-2020, using monthly data from the Franklin Templeton-Gallup Economics of Recovery Study, found significant variation in understanding of COVID-19 facts which, in turn, distorted public policies and behaviors.
Not all of the misinformation, particularly on social media, was promulgated by human beings, however. At least not directly. For example, in a research letter published June 7, 2021, in JAMA Internal Medicine, a diverse team that included UC San Diego scientists found that significant misinformation about face masks and COVID-19 was spread by “bots,” autonomous software programs that allow individuals to generate content and share it broadly via numerous automated accounts, amplifying messaging.
Specifically, first author John W. Ayers, PhD, associate professor in the Division of Infectious Diseases and Global Public Health at UC San Diego School of Medicine, and colleagues measured how quickly links were shared in a sample of 300,000 posts to Facebook groups that shared 251,655 links. They found that links shared by Facebook groups most influenced by bots averaged 4.28 seconds between shares, compared to 4.35 hours for Facebook groups least influenced by bots.
One in five of the posts made to Facebook groups most influenced by bots claimed masks harmed the wearer, contrary to scientific evidence. The World Health Organization has called the phenomenon an “infodemic of misinformation.” While the purpose of misinformation is to give it freely and often, the COVID-19 pandemic also provoked an abundance of efforts to essentially take, mostly money in the form of bogus COVID-19 products and therapies.
Writing in the August 25, 2020 issue of the Journal of Medical Internet Research Public Health and Surveillance, UC San Diego School of Medicine researchers found thousands of social media posts on two popular platforms — Twitter and Instagram — tied to financial scams and possible counterfeit goods specific to COVID-19 products and unapproved treatments.
Lead author Timothy Mackey, PhD, associate professor in the Department of Anesthesiology, and colleagues surveyed the internet between March and May 2020 using a combination of Natural Language Processing and machine learning to identify nearly 2,000 fraudulent postings “likely tied to fake COVID-19 health products, financial scams and other consumer risk.”
— Timothy Mackey, PhD
Mackey’s research team continues to do research on fake COVID-19 products, including vaccines and vaccination cards, through a sponsored project with Google.
“We’re in a post-digital era and as this boom of digital adoption continues,” said Mackey, “we will see more of these fraudulent postings targeting consumers as criminals seek to take advantage of those in need during times of a crisis.”