In the past few days, three things have happened that at first glance have little to do with each other: In Germany, a woman tells nonsense, who calls herself “Poldi’s mom”. In the United States, a man tells nonsense that is President of the United States. Across the world, tens of thousands of people are newly infected with the corona virus.
In fact, these events are closely related. In a voice message, a woman, allegedly the “Mama von Poldi”, claims that the University Hospital of Vienna found that ibuprofen increased the risk of developing Covid-19 seriously. Although the researchers quickly deny it, the misinformation is spreading massively via Whatsapp.
Even more people are reaching the lies and misleading claims Donald Trump has made about the corona virus. The US President has been saying for weeks that he has everything under control, that soon there will be no more people infected and that a vaccine is almost ready. None of this is true.
Poldi’s alleged mom and Donald Trump are two actors who are helping the virological pandemic to be accompanied by a viral infodemic. Rumors, half-truths and false news are spreading rapidly. Of course, digital disinformation alone does not infect anyone – but it creates uncertainty and can cause people to behave carelessly. In times of a pandemic, this can be a matter of life and death.
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus recognized this early on. “We are not just fighting a pandemic, we are fighting an infodemic,” said the head of the World Health Organization WHO a month ago. “False messages spread faster than the virus, and they’re just as dangerous.” His WHO colleague Michael Ryan sees it similarly: “We need a vaccine against misinformation,” he said.
This means it seems a long way off: According to the newsguard factchecking service, misleading or incorrect information about the virus was shared or commented on more than 50 million times by the beginning of March – 142 times more than the content of official sources such as the WHO. This includes, for example, the “Natural News” network, which has secured sites like FactCheck.news or Pandemic.news and publishes outrageous conspiracy theories there.
Even people who mean well share wrong information
In many companies, the floor radio fails because employees work at home – but there are social media and messengers like Whatsapp, through which everyone can share all kinds of information. Some of the rumors are spread with malicious intentions: to unsettle people, stir up racism, sell questionable products, or use the fear of the corona virus to spread computer viruses.
However, questionable claims are shared by people who mean well. In times of crisis, rumors and disinformation are always in vogue, says Professor Kate Starbird, who conducts research on crisis informatics and crisis communication at the University of Washington. When people are insecure and afraid, they try to get as much information as possible to better assess the situation. It used to be difficult to learn anything at all – today you learn more than you actually wanted to know. “The problem is an oversupply of information,” says Starbird.
Cognitive scientists can use psychological concepts to explain why it is human to fall for misinformation. The confirmation error says that information is more likely to be believed if it corresponds to your own world view. Many people are led by emotions such as fear – the so-called gut feeling mistake. And the causal error describes the effect that the brain places random correlations in a causal context.
This is fatal in the current situation. For one thing, the uncertainty itself can become dangerous. In February, Ukrainians who had just arrived on a special flight from China were to be put in quarantine by default in a sanatorium in the small Ukrainian town of Novi Sanschary. When it was wrongly claimed that the passengers were infected with the corona virus, panic and violent protests broke out. The head of the local council spoke of an “Armageddon” triggered by disinformation.
Keeping distance saves human lives
Misleading claims can also be indirectly fatal. In the United States, supporters of Democrats take Covid-19 much more seriously than Republicans – probably also because Trump repeatedly downplayed the danger. The proportion of Democrats who want to avoid eating out is three times that of Republicans. More than twice as many people who vote democratically want to change their travel plans or avoid public gatherings.
It has been proven that “social distancing” works: 100 years ago, the city of St. Louis was able to prevent the outbreak of the Spanish flu with early and decisive measures – Philadelphia intervened too late and thousands of people died. That still applies today. Washing your hands and keeping your distance can help slow the spread of the virus. If you do not want to change your everyday life because you are not part of the risk group, you will help to ensure that people are killed.