Misinformation in the Healthcare Sector

The NHS is dear to Britons, who jealously guard the reputation of their national healthcare service, of which they are proud. Health and healthcare provision are favourite subjects for debate in the UK.

Scammers have taken advantage of this and have made the UK a top target for misinformation and disinformation about healthcare in general, and COVID-19 in particular. In fact, Britain was the most targeted nation for COVID-19 spam, according to Trading Standards officials, with one in five COVID spam emails sent to UK addresses, double the amount sent to second-placed France.

With more people working from home, scammers took advantage, distributing health misinformation as fast as the spread of Omicron. COVID misinformation has become so ubiquitous that the World Health Organisation coined a new word for it – infodemic. Misinformation concerning COVID-19 is so widespread that is it a major threat to public health, according to a Royal Society research paper, Susceptibility to misinformation about COVID-19 around the world. Infodemic posts include COVID-19 misinformation – false details shared by misinformed posters, and disinformation – intended to deliberately mislead recipients.

Scottish Parliament members, who are currently investigating how to combat health misinformation and disinformation, have been told that the UK faced a communication challenge from COVID-19. Will Moy, chief executive of the independent fact-checking organisation Full Fact, told the Covid-19 Recovery Committee, “The first thing to say about the pandemic is it was number one on the UK national risk register, everybody who thought about this knew it was going to happen and yet we were unprepared for the communication challenge that came with it.

Fact-checkers are “first responders” to misinformation, he says. Full Fact is now creating a framework for dealing with “information incidents”, which it suggests the Scottish Government should look at.

Callum Hood, of the Centre for Countering Digital Hate, says online searches often produced results showing COVID disinformation, rather than reliable facts. The government needed to do more to ensure social media companies took down COVID-19 misinformation when it was reported. “The last time we audited this they failed to act on 88% of them.”

US President, Joe Biden was even more forthright in his criticism in July 2021, when he accused tech platforms of “killing people” by spreading misinformation about COVID vaccines. He was concerned that vaccine hesitancy fuelled by misinformation was behind the US failing to reach the goal of 70% of adults receiving at least one vaccine dose by 4th July.

His comments echoed those a day earlier of U.S. Surgeon General Dr Vivek Murthy, who issued an advisory against the urgent threat of health misinformation, saying, “Technology companies have enabled misinformation to poison our information environment with little accountability to their users.”

He warned that tech platforms that “reward engagement rather than accuracy” are contributing to the spread of misinformation, which leads to avoidable illness and deaths. Tech companies had to increase social media transparency, change their algorithms to stop misinformation from spreading and “swiftly and consistently take action against misinformation super-spreaders on their platforms.”

Facebook says it has introduced a series of measures to combat COVID-19 misinformation and has directed 100 million people to the World Health Organisation and other reputable health organisations. “Ever since the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global public health emergency, we’ve been working to connect people to accurate information and taking aggressive steps to stop misinformation and harmful content from spreading.” Spokesperson Dani Lever says, “The facts show that Facebook is helping save lives.”

COVID misinformation does not just lead to physical health issues, but mental health problems, too, including for those spreading the fake news, according to health experts. One new study published on Nature.com involving 80 million Twitter posts suggests that users who shared COVID-19 misinformation experienced twice the anxiety compared to similar users who did not share misinformation. “Given the massive number of people who are exposed to misinformation that accompanies almost every major real-world event, our study indicates that the people who share misinformation do not just worsen the situation by contributing to its spread, as is known widely, but are also the victims of resultant anxiety that they experience.”

A section of the new report by iResearch Services, Does fake news affect your business? covers the responses of 600 business leaders and 1,000 consumers in various countries to healthcare and COVID-19 misinformation. Respondents are mostly positive about how businesses have tackled COVID-19 misinformation. Consumers from all regions surveyed say companies are doing very or fairly well in combatting COVID-19 misinformation.

The biggest concern came from Italy, which has seen a growing number of COVID cases in the last two years. Just half (50%) of survey respondents thought businesses were handing COVID misinformation well or fairly well, compared to 68% who backed the same response to general health misinformation. In India, the reverse was true, with 90% backing the response of companies in the health sector to COVID misinformation, compared to 84% concerning combatting health fake news in general.

Although estimated COVID-19 levels are currently falling, experts say the virus is becoming endemic in the UK and is still evolving. In autumn and winter, the number of cases is expected to rise again, so, COVID-19 and the debate over COVID-19 misinformation and disinformation is not going away soon.

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