The WHO director general, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, made the point recently: “We’re not just fighting an epidemic; we’re fighting an infodemic”. It is a sad sign of our times that our health professionals and organisations not only have to deal with fighting COVID19 they are also having to fight fake news being spread online. The WHO has even had to set up a Myth busting page to try to combat this infodemic, complete with a range of visuals that they are encouraging people to download and share.
Social media has always been plagued by false information, but when it comes to healthcare it can have devastating effects. A great example of this is the vaccine debacle. This has seen countries that were previously free of measles lose that status and start to see children and vulnerable people dying from this preventable death – all because a parent believes the vaccine may cause autism or some other falsehood.
There are then also the incredibly unethical people who make money from spreading fake healthcare information. For example selling herbal remedies to cancer or “perfectly safe and tested” diet pills that actually kill people. Finally there are the pure evil who simply spread this dangerous false information “for the fun of it”.
The sheer volume of false information can make life very confusing for patients. As an autoimmune patient I myself have seen a whole array of information about autoimmune disease and COVID19. Whilst in my case it may put me in a higher risk of feeling very ill it does not put me in the extreme risk category (like my elderly mother with respiratory problems). I would actually be more worried if I was a heavy smoker.
Some of the mixed messages I have seen for autoimmune patients though revolve around taking medication. For MS patients, for example even the authorities are posting mixed messages. In some countries the advice for MS patients on some of the immunosuppressants is to continue taking them as normal. In others it is to consider stopping or delaying treatment. This will of course vary patient to patient with some seeing the risk of their MS deteriorating as far higher than catching COVID-19.
The problem occurs if patients see information and decide to falsely stop treatment without having consulted their physician. Given how busy physicians currently are this is a real risk. It is at this time when access to physicians is becoming more restricted that patients need access to accurate and trustworthy information online.
The social media platforms IMHO have a considerable responsibility in this area. It is great to see Facebook pushing WHO information to top of search and feeds. Twitter has now also joined in and will be prohibiting tweets that “could place people at a higher risk of transmitting COVID-19.” Unfortunately it has not gone so far as to offer a reporting option for these dangerous tweets.
I believe the only way to really start to win the battle against dangerous health information is to work together and to penalise people who knowingly spread this misinformation. Social media platforms must do even more. It needs to be easier for people to report fake news. We need to see more HCPs and scientists active online correcting fake information. Laws also need to be adapted to penalise those that endanger lives by sharing false information. All of these things are starting to happen and maybe COVD19 will speed up these activities.
In the meantime we can all do our bit by sharing the trustworthy information and being sensible ourselves.