Alongside Covid-19, we’re facing a dangerous misinformation 'infodemic' — Jo Furnival

APRIL 27 — There’s a sense of panic in the air today. From 5G masts burning down due to conspiracy theories about links to Covid-19, to health organisations connecting lifestyle choices to the virus based on inconclusive data, the world is in the grip of a Coronavirus pandemic; but we also have another issue on our hands — an “infodemic.”

Social media spreads news in an instant. However, when that news contains shaky science or even “alternative facts,” then we have a major problem.

Kate Starbird of Washington State University, a leading expert on “crisis informatics,” has extensively researched how information flows in crisis situations, especially over social media. She determines that crisis causes uncertainty, which in turn breeds anxiety.

The result is the spread of misinformation, as people try to find reasons “why” and take some sort of action in order to retain a sense of control. As a result, today’s world is operating on knee-jerk reactions.

Recent examples are numerous. From Donald Trump championing an unproven drug to fight coronavirus (or injecting disinfectant), to Iranians drinking methanol to fight off Covid-19, everyone from world leaders to upstanding citizens is reacting to misinformation.

Decisions are being made on emotion not evidence and, in all cases, it causes more harm than good. This toxic “infodemic” has reached such proportions that WhatsApp has put restrictions in place to slow sharing, and Facebook will start warning users directly if they engage with harmful misinformation about the coronavirus.

In Vietnam, a new decree has been introduced with fines for the dissemination of “fake news” and rumours on social media, which comes amid the rapid spread of comment online about Covid-19 in the South-east Asian country.

Social media was responsible for the spread of the latest global conspiracy theory, that 5G masts were causing everything from coronavirus to cancer. The myth supposedly began with a Belgian doctor linking the “dangers” of 5G technology to the virus during an interview.

Since then, it has been seen and shared across the world, from Australia to the US, even resulting in 20 mobile phone masts needlessly being torched or vandalised in the UK.

There has also been confusion around the non-prescription drug Ibuprofen and its effects on Covid-19. France’s health minister tweeted that taking anti-inflammatories (including Ibuprofen) “could be a factor in aggravating the infection.”

However, Australia's Therapeutic Goods Administration says there is “no published peer-reviewed scientific evidence to support a direct link between use of Ibuprofen and more severe infection with Covid19.”

Unfortunately, the tweet has already been shared more than 42,000 times.

The World Health Organisation's assertion that smokers may be more vulnerable to Covid-19 has now been debunked by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Of course, the dangers of smoking are well known but there was no proven positive correlation between smoking and a vulnerability to Covid-19 when the WHO issued its warning.

The largest US study of Covid-19 found that old and obese people are more likely to be hospitalised with the coronavirus than cancer or lung disease patients. The researchers said, “surprisingly” there was no association between smoking and an increased risk of falling seriously ill with the virus.

Indeed, the Norwegian Institute of Public Health has now removed smokers from the list of people at risk of serious illness from Covid-19, saying age seems to be the most obvious risk factor.

The very latest research shows that smoking (or rather nicotine) provides some sort of defence against Covid-19. Eminent neurobiologist Jean-Pierre Changeux, who has reviewed the work, speculated that nicotine could protect against the virus by adhering to cell receptors, thereby blocking it from entering into cells and spreading throughout the body.

The cross-sectional study “strongly suggests that daily smokers have a much lower probability of developing symptomatic or severe SARS-CoV-2 infection.” Who knew we’d wake up in a world in which nicotine might actually be good for you?

At a time when we are anxiously scanning the news for scientific information and developments relating to this terrible virus, it is dangerous for anyone to make tenuous links between Covid-19 and lifestyle choices.

The current global climate is tense enough as it is, with people losing loved ones, mass job losses and sheer boredom fuelling the hunger for more news.

Surely now, of all times, it is everyone’s duty to remain calm, measured and take a more thorough approach to the sharing of information in order to help flatten the curve of this dangerous “infodemic.”

* Jo Furnival is a contributor who writes about health policy.

** This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail.

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