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Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

An "infodemic" of misinformation and disinformation has helped cripple the response to the novel coronavirus.

Why it matters: High-powered social media accelerates the spread of lies and political polarization that motivates people to believe them. Unless the public health sphere can effectively counter misinformation, not even an effective vaccine may be enough to end the pandemic.

Driving the news: This month the WHO is running the first "infodemiology" conference, to study the infodemic of misinformation and disinformation around the coronavirus.

What they're saying: While fake news is anything but new, the difference is the infodemic "can kill people if they don't understand what precautions to take," says Phil Howard, director of the Oxford Internet Institute and author of the new book "Lie Machines."

  • Beyond its effect on individuals, the infodemic erodes trust in government and science at the moment when that trust is most needed.
  • A study by the Reuters Institute found 39% of English-language misinformation assessed between January and March included false claims about the actions or policies of authorities.

By the numbers: The infodemic has spread nearly as widely as the pandemic itself in the U.S.

  • As early as March, about half of surveyed Americans reported they had encountered at least some completely made-up news about the pandemic.
  • 38% of Americans surveyed by Pew in June said that compared to the first couple of weeks of the pandemic, they found it harder to identify what was true and what was false about the virus.
  • In that same survey, roughly a third of Americans exposed to a conspiracy theory that the COVID-19 outbreak was intentionally unleashed by people in power said that they saw some truth in it.

How it works: Misinformation and disinformation have always been a destabilizing feature of infectious disease outbreaks. But several factors have made the situation worse with COVID-19.

  1. An evolving outbreak: COVID-19 is new, and as scientists have learned more about the virus, they've had to change recommendations. That's how science works, but "if you're distrustful of authorities, an expert taking a position different than it was three days ago just confirms your bias," says Joe Smyser, CEO of the Public Good Projects.
  2. Social media: While experts give some credit to companies like Facebook and Twitter for their efforts to stem the spread of coronavirus misinformation, the reality is that platforms built on engagement will often end up as conduits of conspiracy content, which Howard notes tends to be unusually "sticky." A review by the Reuters Institute of 225 pieces of misinformation spread by political figures and celebrities made up only 20% of the sample but accounted for 69% of engagement.
  3. Disinformation warfare: In June, the European Commission issued a joint communication blaming Russia and China for "targeted influence operations and disinformation campaigns around COVID-19 in the EU." And those campaigns are effective — in a recent study, Howard found disinformation from Russian and Chinese state sources often reached a bigger audience on social media in Europe than reporting by major domestic outlets.
  4. Political and media polarization: "In our hyper-polarized and politicized climate, many folks just inherently mistrust advice or evidence that comes from an opposing political party," notes Alison Buttenheim of the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing. Conservatives are particularly vulnerable — an April study found Americans who relied on conservative media were more likely to believe conspiracy theories and rumors about the coronavirus.

Public health experts must take an active role in combatting the infodemic, says Timothy Caulfield, research director of the University of Alberta's Health Law Institute.

  • One example is the "Nerdy Girls," an all-female team of experts who spread accurate information about the pandemic on social media in a way that aims to "engender trust," says Buttenheim, one of the group's members.
  • Individuals can do their part by practicing information distancing as well as social distancing. "If you can just nudge people to pause before they share on social media, you can actually decrease the spread of misinformation," says Caulfield.

What to watch: Whether the infodemic causes a significant chunk of the U.S. public to opt-out of a future COVID-19 vaccine.

  • In a CNN poll in May, a third of Americans said they would not try to get vaccinated against COVID-19. If that proportion holds or rises, a vaccine would be "unlikely" to provide herd immunity, warns Anthony Fauci.
  • The highly-organized and internet-savvy anti-vaxxer community is already targeting a potential COVID-19 vaccine. That includes attending Black Lives Matter events to convince protesters that "vaccines are part of structural racism," says Smyser.

The bottom line: While the pandemic wasn't human-made, the infodemic surely is. But that means public health experts and the public itself can put a halt to it with the right strategy.

Go deeper

Updated 4 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Coronavirus dashboard

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

  1. Health: Coronavirus cases hold steady at 65,000 per day — CDC declares racism "a serious public health threat" — WHO official: Brazil is dealing with "raging inferno" of a COVID outbreak
  2. Vaccines: America may be close to hitting a vaccine wall — Pfizer asks FDA to expand COVID vaccine authorization to adolescents — CDC says Johnson & Johnson vaccine supply will drop 80% next week.
  3. Economy: Treasury says over 156 million stimulus payments sent out since March — More government spending expected as IMF projects 6% global GDP growth.
  4. Politics: Supreme Court ends California's coronavirus restrictions on home religious meetings
  5. Variant tracker: Where different strains are spreading.
Dave Lawler, author of World
Oct 15, 2020 - World

Special report: Europe braces for monster 2nd coronavirus wave

Data: Our World in Data; Chart: Naema Ahmed/Axios

The pandemic has come storming back to Europe, and hope of a return to normality is being replaced by a much more ominous prospect: the return to lockdown.

The big picture: Case counts in countries like France and Spain have skyrocketed past the numbers seen during the spring peak. While that’s partially due to more widespread testing, it’s now clear that deaths are climbing too.

Oct 16, 2020 - Health

U.S. reports over 63,000 daily COVID-19 cases

A health worker handling a coronavirus test sample Oct. 15 in Roxbury, Mass. Photo: Matt Stone/MediaNews Group/Boston Herald

The U.S. reported 63,172 new coronavirus cases on Thursday, the nation's highest daily count since July 31 when it saw more than 66,000 new cases in a single day, according to data from the COVID Tracking Project.

Why it matters: Over 37,000 people are currently being hospitalized due to the virus in the U.S., while the country reported 951 new deaths from the virus. COVID-19 infections jumped by almost 17% over the past week as the number of new cases increased in 38 states and Washington, D.C.

Go deeper: The United States' stubbornly high coronavirus death rate