Can Social Media Be a Reliable Source for Information on COVID-19?

A representation of a social media site containing false information. Social media is not a reliable source for information. Illustration by Bijou Allard.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been characterized not only by skyrocketing infection counts but also by a dramatic increase in the spread of false information. The main culprits of spreading misinformation have been large social media companies, such as Instagram, Twitter, and, perhaps most notably, Facebook. These social media giants have contributed to the rise in anti-mask sentiments, news of false cures, and even ridiculous claims that governments created this virus, by failing to stop fake accounts at the source and by employing algorithms that can lead people down a rabbit hole of misinformation. Social media is not a good source of information, but it can lead to correct sources of information like the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and local health organizations like the Oregon Health Authority (OHA).

In March, when COVID-19 was still new to scientists and relatively unresearched, the CDC said that we should all wear masks and stay six feet away from each other. Somehow, the topic of masks became a polarizing political issue. A large part of the problem has been President Donald Trump, who has repeatedly touted unproven and unverified drugs and treatments, retweeted false news about COVID-19, and failed to wear a mask. With anyone else, this may be less of a problem, but when someone with influence over an entire country and over 87 million Twitter followers starts to produce sketchy narratives about a dangerous disease, that information can spread faster than a virus. In April, Trump posed a question asking whether household cleaning supplies could be used against the fight against COVID-19. In a White House briefing, Trump clarified the context, saying, “I was asking a very sarcastic question to the reporters in the room about disinfectant on the inside.” Much like his response to COVID-19, he was joking about a dangerous subject, but it ended up having consequences for real people. Despite his context saying that he intended his words to be sarcastic, this dangerous idea spread throughout social media in the coming weeks. The effects of his words were shown in a CDC report in June. In this report, 6% of those interviewed reported inhaling vapors of household cleaners and disinfectants in hopes of stopping the virus, and 4% of people reported “drinking or gargling diluted bleach solutions, soapy water, and other disinfectant solutions.” In this situation, the people had to decide for themselves whether they believed what President Trump was saying, and having to decide what you believe to be correct is a recipe for disaster. A senior at Franklin High School (who wished to remain anonymous) said, “Social media sucks[for getting information]. We all have to have personal filters to figure out what’s true or not.” This is why it is crucial to get information from verified sources so that you don’t have to risk making the wrong decision.

Not only has social media led people to take dangerous actions in attempts to prevent COVID-19, but some have died as a result. In March, an Arizona man died, and his wife was in critical condition after they overdosed on chloroquine. The woman later said that she had [aquarium] chloroquine in her house and noticed the President saying that it could be used against COVID-19. In Nigeria, at least three people overdosed on chloroquine after seeing Trump advocate for the drug’s virus-suppressing potential. This shows that social media companies need to do a better job of filtering incorrect and dangerous content so that people can be protected from misleading information.

Fake coronavirus cures and therapies were also widely touted by people on social media and television. Infamous right-wing talk show host, Alex Jones, received an order from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to remove toothpaste and other products that falsely claimed to prevent, treat, and/or cure COVID-19, from their online store. Youtube, Facebook, and Twitter, also had to remove several videos retweeted by President Trump that claimed hydroxychloroquine was a cure for the virus and that masks were unnecessary. Because of how far videos can spread across social media platforms, it is incredibly difficult to mitigate false claims. As of right now, anyone who claims to have a coronavirus cure is lying. Social media and the internet should never be seen as a marketplace to buy so-called “cures,” so be wary when navigating these sources and check the CDC to see up-to-date information on vaccine progress and treatments in use.

Potential drug treatments are not the only ways in which social media has spread false information regarding COVID-19. Social media has been used on many occasions during the COVID-19 pandemic to spread anti-mask sentiments, say the pandemic is a hoax, and even claim that 5G cell towers are causing cancer and COVID-19. In late March to early April, misinformation was spread across numerous platforms stating that 5G cell towers spread COVID-19. This caused several dozen cell towers in the Netherlands, UK, Ireland, and Cyprus to be set on fire due to fears of cell signals spreading a virus. The fact that these outrageous claims have no sort of scientific merit whatsoever shows just how dangerous getting information through social media can be. Social media has fanned the flames of misinformation – in some cases literally – during this pandemic. 

While the overwhelming majority of stories that we hear about social media and COVID-19 are negative, there are still several ways that social media can provide people with helpful information. If you are getting information about COVID from social media, fact check it! As a Franklin senior said, “Always cross-check with multiple sources if possible!” Social media users can provide valuable links to cross-check sources, such as the CDC, WHO, and other local health organizations and universities, which has no doubt helped countless people by providing users with a quick and easy way to access correct health information. This is one of the ways how social media has had a positive influence on the spreading of valid information.

Having a massive amount of media at your fingertips gives you the power to gain a lot of reliable information, but that can easily take you down a rabbit hole of false narratives and hoaxes. Social media sites get millions of posts every minute, and algorithms to automatically fact-check posts don’t always catch everything, so if you see a story or a link that includes false information, report it. What you get out of social media can be up to you. While algorithms control the media that you receive, you can still get valuable information out of social media so long as it comes from correct and vetted sources.

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