COVID-19 and health misinformation
During community quarantine, Filipinos turn to social media more than ever for news, entertainment, and connection. One happy effect of social media use is the emergence of groups and pages that help Filipinos from all sectors to seek help, to find solutions, and to spread useful information. Facebook groups have been useful in securing donations for small families and enterprises, in helping struggling businesses to sell goods, and in pooling and channeling donations of personal protective equipment (PPE) to hospitals in need. The Twitter accounts of celebrities and agencies have turned into call centers where people can ask for donations, transport assistance, and PPE. Social media has thus become an invaluable tool in getting Filipinos through the crisis.
However, even pages like these are not immune to being platforms of health-related misinformation. Fake news about science, health, and so-called COVID-19 “cures” are misleading at best, harmful at worst. One recalls the short-lived health news that bananas can prevent infection with COVID, fooling even government officials and health professionals, and the still-circulating posts that alkaline water “swiftly combats” the coronavirus. At worst, such news could result in produce hoarding and, probably, wasted resources for those who choose to buy alkaline water.
Other bits of misinformation can have more dire consequences. Some posts encourage extreme doses of intravenously infused Vitamin C or other antioxidants, which can be obtained through facilities even without medical advice, and which are prone to abuse and mishandling. A local celebrity encouraged followers to “bulk buy” bleach and to use it to disinfect surfaces and groceries, in proportions which can be caustic to skin and dangerous for use with food items.
Some posts encourage lay persons to do prophylaxis with hydroxychloroquine, the controversial drug under investigation as a cure for COVID-19, but which can be dangerous, even fatal, if taken without medical guidance and supervision. Carelessly encouraging its hoarding can also lead to dangerous shortages for patient groups that are already taking hydroxychloroquine. Some less common, but probably more insidious, posts include those which teach respiratory exercises and other home remedies for severe illnesses that ought to be managed by health professionals. False claims easily compete with robust, evidence-based recommendations. A tendency to spread fake news has been a longstanding problem, fueled by irresponsible clickbaiting headlines, poor access to full news articles by those with insufficient cellular data, and problems with reading comprehension and poor fact-checking. In addition, we now have to contend with panic over the pandemic, as well as the fact that expert opinion and scientific studies can only do so much: information on COVID-19 treatments are still lacking, and information on testing and prevention continues to evolve.
Groups working to fight misinformation, such as the International Fact-Checking Network and the World Health Organization, are in contact with the most popular platforms, such as Facebook, TikTok, and Twitter, to formulate strategies to easily tag misleading posts and suspend involved accounts. More nuanced and urgent concerns should be addressed through hotlines of the Department of Health or COVID referral centers, which are also continuously making advisories and infographics for the public’s information. For all else, constant vigilance is key. Even the cautious and the educated may share false news, and now more than ever, social media users must post responsibly and fact-check as best as trusted sources will allow.
The Inquirer Foundation supports our healthcare frontliners and is still accepting cash donations to be deposited at Banco de Oro (BDO) current account #007960018860 or donate through PayMaya using this link .
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