What can we do about misinformation during the COVID-19 pandemic?

By Howard Winsten-Korver

I received a curious message from a friend recently — it claimed that by only having hot drinks rather than cold ones, you could prevent yourself from contracting COVID-19.  When I replied, asking where he had received this information, he said that it was from one of his relatives – but he got defensive when I argued that it may not be true.  I did not bother pressing the issue any further; after all, there is only a limited amount of negative consequences that can occur from having hot drinks.

Cyril Saulnier/Unsplash

However, if people are so willing to believe that hot beverages protect against the coronavirus, then it may mean that they are willing to believe more dangerous ideas, such as the one recently presented by President Donald Trump, in which he claimed that injecting disinfectant may be a potential treatment for the virus. There has already been evidence of the dangers of misinformation in countries such as Iran, where hundreds of people have sadly died after a fake rumour circulated claiming that consuming methanol (a toxic form of alcohol) would cure COVID-19. 

We must remember that this is a particularly stressful and scary time for all of us, and the feeling of control that people get from these ideas may feel comforting

This is sadly not a new problem; misinformation has had catastrophic affects in the healthcare sector in the past. For example, in 1998 the now discredited Andrew Wakefield published an article claiming that there was a link between autism and the MMR vaccine, which kick-started the ‘anti-vaccination’ movement. Despite numerous scientific papers showing that there is no link at all between vaccinations and autism, there are still continuing cases of mumps being reported, a disease which could have been eradicated in the UK by the vaccination program. 

So how do you tackle this misinformation? I contacted Dr Sarah Statton of the University of Exeter Medical School, in order to ask for her advice in this. As a doctor, she has had experience in informing patients about treatments and tackling false information that may have been acquired from questionable sources. She advised that it is important to listen to what the other person has to say, and then to use appropriate evidence to explain your thoughts on the matter. Allow them to question you, and ensure that you answer honestly – it may also be useful to direct them to reliable internet sources such as the NHS website and encourage them to speak to others, such as other family members and friends, about their concerns. I think that her final point is very important, and one that can often be overlooked, and that is to “remain calm and avoid having a heated argument with them!” 

Glenn Carstens-Peters/Unsplash

It is very easy to get fed-up and angry with people who are following inappropriate medical advice – especially if it puts themselves, or others, in danger. However, we must remember that this is a particularly stressful and scary time for all of us, and the feeling of control that people get from these ideas may feel comforting. Therefore, it is important to remind people of what they are in control of, and how they can prevent the spread and risk of COVID-19, for example, by regularly washing their hands and keeping to social distancing regulations. 

I hope that this article will encourage you, the reader, to tackle misinformation when you see it – and to help prevent the potentially devasting affects that it can cause. If you get a message from a friend or family member about the next miraculous cure for COVID-19, I hope that you are now in a better position to talk to them about it.

The views expressed in this publication are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views of Falmouth University, the University of Exeter or Falmouth and Exeter Students’ Union.