At the start of the lockdown, we searched the internet for news and information about the coronavirus. But because the virus was new to our world, trusted health institutions around the world didn’t have all the answers we were looking for right away. Even before the pandemic, mass media and social networking sites had already been abounding with fake news. To add to that, the myriad of information and reports circulating the internet may be difficult for those who lack certain skills to comprehend and tell right from wrong.
During a pandemic, scientific publications carry the burden of battling the circulation of fake news and the public’s acceptance of it as gospel. But because news spreads like wildfire in today’s age, publishing must be expedited. Thankfully, we have technologies today that allow for faster publishing and distribution — self-publishing, compared to traditional, allows for a faster process. Scientific publication normally moves at a much slower pace — one akin to traditional publishing.
The effects of fake news and misinformation
The spread of misinformation can lead to harmful behavior among the public. For instance, there were reports of several people refusing to take certain medications, such as ibuprofen, due to the false belief that it could make them more susceptible to contracting the virus. On the other end of the spectrum, some believed that the pandemic isn’t real.
Public figures who have much larger followings than the scientific community can influence the public than even media outlets. The public may also be more likely to frequent the social media platforms of these figures more often than that of media platforms. Therefore, they may also be more likely to follow in the footsteps of public figures rather than the scientific community. Earlier in the U.S. lockdown, for instance, celebrities such as Evangeline Lilly openly refused to self-quarantine and were seen defying health and safety protocols. Regardless of whether they later lamented their actions, many celebrities engaged in irresponsible behavior, such as attending mass gatherings and refusing to wear PPE.
There may be no way to measure how such decisions made by famous people — highly publicized by their status — have influenced others to act similarly, but it’s safe to assume that they have. Therefore, these public figures are responsible for thinking about their pandemic-related posts and how they may be interpreted before posting them.
Fake news has also resulted in increased levels of anxiety, especially among those already living with PTSD. It’s also causing headline stress disorder. This refers to feelings of stress, depression, and hopelessness brought about by a surge of negative news from the media. Younger generations — millennials and Gen Z — are more prone to suffering from headline stress disorder. This is most likely a result of the tendency of younger adults to spend more time on social media than older adults.
Many people feel torn between wanting to stay updated and not wanting their mood disrupted by the news. During these times, it’s important to step away from news updates for the good of one’s mental health. The pandemic itself already has many of us on edge — there’s no need to push yourself further towards the brink. Inform yourself just enough to keep you and your loved ones safe and do so with information from reliable sources.
The role of the scientific publishing community
Because of the pandemic, scientific publications have been made public to keep people informed. Normally, they are presented to limited circles and then kept inaccessible by expensive journal subscription fees. It’s no wonder then why so many resort to Google searching symptoms and self-diagnosing — even before SARS-COV-2 emerged.
The COVID-19 Open Research Dataset (CORD-19) is a dataset of research about COVID-19 available to the public. This initiative aims to keep the public informed with reliable data from medical professionals around the world. It’s hard to say whether things will continue to stay this way after the pandemic though it would be in everyone’s best interests if it did. Any claims about the virus can be checked by taking a look at publicly available datasets.
The pandemic has prompted the scientific publishing community to open up their datasets for the public and expedite their research and findings. In a time when misinformation is running rampant, and the public grows restless, these are crucial. But while the scientific community’s responsibilities are clear cut, so are those of the public. We all have to make sure to examine the sources of the reports we see before accepting them to be true and spreading them to our social circles.