Disinformation of the COVID-19 Pandemic

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COVID-19 is a respiratory disease caused by a novel coronavirus that causes symptoms such as shortness of breath, fever, cough, etc.[1] The World Health Organization (WHO) identified it as a new type of coronavirus after China reported an outbreak in December 2020.[1] Most coronaviruses are not relatively dangerous, however, the infections from COVID-19 have ranged from mild to deadly.[1] The disease mainly affects those who are 65 and older as well as people with underlying health conditions; however, there is still much left to discover about the disease. [2] COVID-19 is mainly spread through person-to-person contact from respiratory droplets that come from coughing, sneezing, or talking.[3] As a result, a primary method of combating the virus is limiting in-person contact and communication. Researchers are still uncertain of what caused the COVID-19 variant, but coronaviruses are common in humans and animals including bats, camels, cats, and cattle. However, because the COVID-19 strain is similar to the strains of MERS and SARS, the origin is believed to have come from bats.[1]

COVID-19 Pandemic

A screenshot of reported cases throughout the pandemic [4]

On March 11, 2019, the World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 crisis a global pandemic. [5] In the months following the declaration, the United States entered a nationwide lockdown to help prevent the spread of the virus in an unprecedented move. As a result of the reduced activity, the American economy came to a halt as well and caused the worst recession seen since the Great Recession of 2009.[6] The lockdown caused a great deal of controversy as small businesses everywhere struggled to stay in business without being able to stay open to the public. As there were sentiments by some states to reopen their economies, emerging information about the Coronavirus such as new case numbers, new death tolls, and test positivity rates in certain areas formed the basis of arguments from each side of the aisle. Because this data drove the rationale for both arguments, there were instances of it being skewed to fit different agendas.

Controversy and Conspiracies of COVID-19


According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), masks are effective at preventing spreading and contracting the virus by filtering out the virus particles from the air. [7] This method has proven to reduce the spread of the virus. Some people are opposed to the use of masks and other personal protective equipment because they report it makes it difficult to breathe and feel that the policy is an overstep by the government infringing on their personal liberties. [8] Those that are against wearing masks have contributed to the spread of misinformation surrounding the pandemic, pushing information that frames COVID-19 as a minimal threat despite overwhelming evidence in the opposite direction.

COVID-19 Vaccination

Since COVID-19 has swept through the United States, the development of an effective vaccine has been at the center of attention around this pandemic. The federally sponsored push to accelerate the development of the vaccine is named "Operation Warp Speed," and the vaccine is now being distributed all over the United States. Despite much testing and no evidence of bad long-term effects, a recent survey shows that only 50-70% of United States citizens wish to receive the vaccine. [9] It has been estimated that about 70-90% of the population will need to receive the vaccine to reach herd immunity. [10] Much of the concern surrounding the vaccine has to do with the speed at which it was approved and produced. However, there have also been conspiracy theories about the vaccine such as that it is being developed so Bill Gates can put microchip trackers in a large portion of the population through the vaccine. [11] With no evidence behind the conspiracy theory, there is fear that the narrative will slow the United States' pace of achieving herd immunity.

The Spread of Disinformation

The spread of disinformation on the internet increased rapidly during the pandemic, with a major contributor being an increase in the use of information technologies, especially social media. This led to more people having distrust in the information they saw, making it harder to create policies that did not face backlash from portions of the public. [12]

Social Media

The issue of disinformation spread on social media is complicated in nature. Although social media platforms serve as a place where people can speak freely about any topic, these platforms now have to balance allowing an open forum for speech and discussion while simultaneously protecting the spread of disinformation. Otherwise, false information can spread quickly to a large audience of people. As these platforms continue to expand, there is a growing responsibility to fact-check posts, especially popular ones, to limit the spread of disinformation. [13]

Donald J. Trump

A screenshot of one of Donald Trump's tweets downplaying the severity of the pandemic. [14]

One of the main spreaders of disinformation was President Donald J. Trump, who often downplayed the risks of COVID-19 on Twitter. His account was eventually banned from the Twitter platform due to his tweets and their outcomes, namely, the January Capitol riots. After this action by the social media company, the amount of disinformation online about COVID-19, among other issues, dropped by about 73 percent.[15] Throughout his presidency, one of Trump's main goals was to build up the American economy. Because the pandemic and its subsequent shutdown threatened this, Trump wanted to downplay the severity of the pandemic. He did this through his Twitter often, tweeting out false information. [15] Additionally, Trump often referred to the COVID-19 virus as the "China Virus," which was shown to increase the use of anti-Asian hashtags on Twitter. [16] This is especially prevalent because of the shooting that occurred on March 16, 2021, in Atlanta Georgia. Six of the eight victims were Asian. [17] This is one example of the dangers of disinformation.

Helicopters Spraying Disinfectant

During March 2020, there were stories that helicopters were going to fly over neighborhoods and spray disinfectant in the air to kill the virus and end the spread.[18] This claim originated in India, Mexico, and Switzerland, and eventually spread to the United States. The information was shared through text messages over WhatsApp before spreading through multiple social media platforms. This is another piece of disinformation that was started and spread surrounding the hysteria that was the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. In particular, residents of New York City received texts that warned them to close their windows and doors as the disinfectant would be in the air after 11:00 p.m. This caused New York City Council Speaker Corey Johnson to address these rumors over Twitter and deny the validity of the information.[18]

5G Spreading COVID-19

In late January 2020, Facebook posts claiming 5G technology was responsible for the emergence of the COVID-19 started circulating around the internet.[19] This was around the same time the first cases of COVID-19 were recorded in the United States. The posts either claimed that 5G weakened the immune system and allowed people to be more susceptible to the virus, or 5G technology had the potential to transmit the virus. According to the University of Reading’s Dr. Simon Clarke, however, the claims are unfounded. The associate professor in microbiology states the immune system can be weakened by many factors, and 5G radio waves are not included as they are not strong enough to heat people enough to affect them in any capacity. Clarke claims that viruses and electromagnetic waves are “as different as chalk and cheese.” One flaw to this specific conspiracy theory is that COVID-19 is being spread in specific areas of countries like the United Kingdom and Iran that do not have 5G access yet.[19]

"Plandemic" Documentary

On May 4th, 2020, a documentary-style 26 minute video named “Plandemic: The Hidden Agenda Behind Covid-19” was released online and spread rapidly through social media, accumulating in millions of views across platforms.[20] It is one of the most widespread sources of misinformation surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic. The video details multiple conspiracy theories that contributed to the spread of misinformation about the pandemic. These include narratives that the pandemic was planned by “billionaires and drug manufacturers,” act as a threat to civil liberties, and question the motivations behind the safety of CDC measures and vaccines.[21] Due to the invalidated information perpetuated in its content, multiple social media sites such as Facebook and Youtube have tried to stem the spread of the video.[22] The video was created and produced by Mikki Wills and largely features interviews with former scientific researcher Judy Mikovits, who has been known for her discredited medical claims. Mikovits has also been involved in anti-vaccination activism and promoting conspiracy theories, including ones that suggest the COVID-19 virus is similar in severity to the common flu.[23] In response to the popularity of "Plandemic," many news outlets, medical professionals, public health leaders, scientists, and other relevant experts have condemned and debunked the numerous claims made in the video, with some labeling it as propaganda. However, some public figures such as several celebrities and political figures have voiced support for the video. Following the release of the initial video, an 84 minute sequel titled “Plandemic: Indoctornation” was posted online as well in August, 2020. The conspiracies made in this video have also been fact checked and discredited.

Chinese Propaganda

Zhao Lijian, a Chinese official, spreading misinformation on Covid-19's origin.[24]

In 2020, as a means of distracting people from their delayed response to COVID-19, China began a propaganda effort to convince the public that the virus did not originate in Wuhan, but instead, America[25]. Further attention to this topic was garnered when Robert Redfield, director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, stated that early COVID-19 deaths had been misattributed to influenza, meaning that the virus may have been in America much earlier than first believed[26]. The Chinese propaganda push was largely an effort to diffuse responsibility for more domestic purposes rather than international, but was built on the idea that the virus was discovered at Wuhan, so China was not necessarily the origin. Chinese diplomats pointed fingers at America for not being transparent with the early cases of COVID-19. A popular false narrative circulating in China was that the US army was in Wuhan a month before the outbreak began, and the first COVID-19 case was near the hotel that the army stayed, so a correlation was singled out as the “real story.” The narrative was also perpetuated by Chinese social media, such as through YouTube and Watermelon Video, as searches for “novel coronavirus” and “US army” were quickly followed by autocomplete suggestions like “The novel coronavirus is an American genetic weapon” and “What did the U.S. Army do in Wuhan” [27]. The conspiracy was renewed in January of 2021, when Joe Biden was inaugurated and experts led by the World Health Organization entered China to investigate the origins of the virus[28]. Chinese officials commented that WHO should be investigating the US as well, and that US overseas research laboratories should be made more transparent. The intentional misinformation from the Chinese government has led to a general confusion, especially among the Chinese public, of where the origin of the virus was.

Ethics of Disinformation

There are ethical considerations that go along with disinformation spread through social media. A vital reflection is whether anyone has been harmed as a result. [29] There can be arguments made whether the disinformation regarding COVID-19 has caused harm as an indirect result. Furthermore, the intentions of the disinformation spread is another consideration; the spread of misinformation for some may have been intentional or unintentional. With Americans consuming so much information on a daily basis, the question of how to debunk misinformation is presented. This is especially important as Americans navigate and consume so much information and try to discern what is accurate, as it could leave the public improperly prepared to protect themselves. [30] Regulation of information sharing is difficult and involves many considerations, both legal and ethical. Because much of the spread has been through social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit, any actions to address ethical concerns and monitoring the spread of disinformation would need to be something that would reach a private company. Private companies may choose to take action on their own accord, which then also may fuel the fire of the free speech debate; if a social media company chooses to "silence" those who are sharing their voice (which adds to the disinformation) as they did with President Trump following the January Capitol riots, it may anger some. For an issue like COVID-19 where peoples' personal attitudes and decisions can affect the safety of others, the ethical and moral concerns hold a large gravity.

Continued Exposure Increases Perceived Accuracy

Continuously being exposed to fake-news headlines increases a person’s perceived accuracy of that headline [31]. It is important for society to discern what is real and what is not real, therefore, recognizing disinformation is a critical step in understanding issues [31]. Studies highlight that explicitly warning individuals of disinformation that has been disputed by fact-checkers did not significantly diminish the effect that repeated exposure to headlines has [31]. Continuous exposure to information will lead people to believe it is true, even if it is proven as false. According to research, “seeing a fake-news headline, whether four times or just once, reduced how unethical people thought it was to publish and share the headline when they saw it again, even when it was labeled false.” [32] People that are exposed to disinformation regarding COVID-19 repeatedly, will perceive that information as more accurate or more ethical than before reading the headlines.

Digital Spread of Information

Disinformation and misinformation spread through digital media platforms so quickly that it can “can overwhelm any information gatekeeping, especially during public health emergencies like a pandemic” [33]. Information that has not been confirmed, or incomplete information is spread throughout social media platforms and users read the information, thinking it is reliable [34]. A common way that disinformation is found in social media is through partially indexing an expert’s claims [34]. Many reports offered partial accounts of Dr. Anthony Fauci’s testimony to a Senate committee in May of 2020 [34]. If the claims and reports are compared to the full video, there is evidence that some clips were taken out of context and claims were exaggerated [34].

Disinformation spreads quickly when prominent figures – like Presidents or celebrities – make statements through social media [33]. The media covers these statements, repeatedly stating the false information that was spread on social media [33]. The attention on the falsehoods posted on social media undermine the authority of qualified individuals during the pandemic [33]. Media that reports on disinformation scandals are countering the authority of professionals in medicine and public health by repeatedly covering the incorrect and harmful information [33].


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