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Fighting the

junk science ‘infodemic’

by | May 4, 2020 | Communication

junk science

Every outbreak of disease since the Middle Ages has been accompanied by an overabundance of information – some of it accurate/authentic and some of it not.

The profusion of junk science (misleading or misinterpreted information) about SARS-CoV-2 (the novel coronavirus) and COVID-19 through social media platforms and other outlets has been termed as an ‘infodemic’ by the WHO (World Health Organization).

Often with misleading information (sometimes labelled as opinion pieces), unrelated and extreme images are paired with fantastical headlines and copy to create sensational content.  

In many instances, some claims are potentially dangerous and life-threatening – even when there has been no intention to cause harm. Case in point being when a world leader wonders out loud about whether disinfectants or UV light could be used for systemic treatment of COVID-19, leading some people to believe that it is a credible cure, and sharing their voices to promote it through their information ecosystem.

The spread of misinformation is alarmingly high in areas where health literacy levels are low and fear levels are high.

How perceived ‘uncertainty’ has been weaponised 

Mistrust of science and/or government is increasing. Scientists and experts are scrambling to study a virus and condition that is moving faster than them. Even when information is being disseminated in real-time, it may not be in a manner that people can quickly understand, or it further confuses them because it may be slightly different to what they heard a week ago. Remember when the experts told us not to wear masks. Now they know that a significant portion of asymptomatic individuals with SARS-CoV-2 can transmit the virus through sneezing and coughing. So, in order to limit the transmission, governments have made wearing face masks in public mandatory. Cue the profusion of outraged opinion pieces questioning “Can we trust the experts?” that reverberate through social media echo chambers.

Junk science or fake news relies mainly on emotions and attitudes that feed crooked thinking. There is no proof of concept or justification needed. As a result, it spreads faster than medical facts to fill the attention void created by the time needed by scientists to validate their theories.

Mythbusting moves

To counteract the slew of misconceptions, the WHO has partnered up with UNICEF and other international agencies to create simple infographics that re-position the myths, and give context to help the reader process the journey to the real science/fact.

junk science

Why we’re localising these infographics

Health literacy refers to the degree to which people can acquire, understand and use basic information to make decisions about health issues. People with lower health literacy are less likely to trust information from healthcare professionals or organisations, but more likely to trust social media, or ‘personality’ blogs with lower quality or sensationalised health information.

Improved health literacy levels with regards to SARS-CoV-2 or COVID-19, in context of the South African scenario, ensures that people are aware of the severity of the situation and are now able to understand how to protect themselves (e.g. washing hands) and others (e.g physical distancing, wearing masks), through basic actions.

We’ve adapted some of the WHO Myth buster infographics for our local audience – presenting the myth as something to be cautious of. The facts are bolstered with interesting and relevant illustrations or icons to help simplify the sometimes-complex scientific jargon to help the reader quickly process the information.

Using a hashtag like #RealRonaFacts taps into the colloquial language used to describe the Coronavirus. Citing the reference in the footer of each infographic normalises fact-checking and trust in the use of credible sources.

Myth #1:

Being able to hold your breath for more than 10 seconds without coughing or feeling any discomfort means that you do not have COVID-19

junk science

Myth #2:

With winter coming up in the southern hemisphere, we are protected from SARS-Cov-2, as the virus cannot survive in cold weather

junk science

Myth #3:

Taking a hot bath protects you from SARS-CoV-2

junk science

Myth #4:

The SARS-CoV-2 virus can be spread by mosquitoes

junk science

Myth #5:

Hot air from hand-dryers kills the Coronavirus

junk science

Myth #6:

Rinsing your nose with a saline solution prevents Coronavirus infection

junk science

*Authors note: We began working on this article on 26 April 2020. It’s taken us time to make each infographic pretty and interesting. By 03 May 2020, the WHO had already had to include 6 new infographics to combat new myths. A reminder that fake news is not burdened down by scientific fact or good design principles!

Access the full list of WHO Mythbusters at https://www.who.int/emergencies/diseases/novel-coronavirus-2019/advice-for-public/myth-busters

The information hosted on the official COVID-19 Coronavirus South African Resource Portal (https://sacoronavirus.co.za/) is a credible source and packed with useful resources to help improve health literacy around SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19 in South Africa.

About the author:

Sohini Gowan

Sohini Gowan is XEIOH’s chief medical copywriter and health science strategist. She graduated as a pharmacist but is a storyteller at heart.

Her best ideas flow when she is out hiking with her dogs or climbing volcanoes or swimming with sharks – anything outside!

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