The rise of “fake news” – including misinformation and inaccurate social media advice – could worsen outbreaks of diseases such as the COVID-19 coronavirus epidemic currently widespread in China, according to research published on Friday.
In an analysis of how the spread of misinformation affects the spread of the disease, scientists from British East Anglia University (UEA) said that any successful attempt to prevent people from sharing false news could help save lives.
“When it comes to COVID-19, there has been a lot of speculation, misinformation and fake news circulating on the Internet – about how the virus originated, what causes it and how it spreads,” said Paul Hunter, UEA professor of medicine who co-led the study.
“Misinformation means that bad advice can circulate very quickly – and it can change human behavior to take greater risks,” he added.
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In their research, Hunter’s team focused on three other infectious diseases – flu, monkeypox and norovirus – but said their findings could also be helpful in addressing the COVID-19 coronavirus epidemic.
“False news is produced without respect for accuracy and is often based on conspiracy theories,” said Hunter.
For the studies – published Friday in separate peer-reviewed journals – the researchers created theoretical simulations of norovirus, influenza and monkeypox epidemics.
Their models took into account studies on real behavior, the spread of different diseases, incubation periods and recovery times, as well as the speed and frequency of publishing social media and sharing information in real life.
They also took into account that less confidence in the authorities is linked to the tendency to believe conspiracies, to the way people interact in online “information bubbles” and to the fact that “worryingly, people are more likely to share bad advice.” on social media rather than good advice from reputable sources, “said Hunter.
The researchers found that a 10% reduction in the amount of harmful advice out there has a mitigating impact on the severity of an outbreak, while making 20% of a population unable to share harmful advice has the same positive effect.
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