"A Secret Disease: The COVID-19 Infodemic."

Updated: Nov 17, 2021

It’s nowhere bizarre to consider that wherever organisms are, diseases invariably will follow. Defined by Merriam Webster[1] as “a condition of the living animal or plant body [...] that impairs normal functioning”, diseases are an almost expected, natural facet of existence. You can most definitely say they’ve been here on Earth for as long as life has. Diseases can be classified into two general categories: non-infectious and infectious. Non-infectious diseases would most typically be associated with genetic disorders and dysfunctions, and at times may be attributed to social determinants like one’s lifestyle and environment. Infectious diseases[2], however, would involve concepts like bacterias, parasites, and — the one that’s taken our entire world by storm — viruses.


Then and Now


The earliest recorded incidence of a pandemic was in 430 B.C. in Athens, during the Peloponnesian War[3]. The plague, which featured symptoms including but not limited to diarrhea, high fever, bradycardia, and hemorrhaging, lasted some five years, killing a quarter of the city’s population in total[4]. Early into the outbreak, many Athenians actually pointed the cause of their condition to the water in their wells, which they hypothesized were poisoned by the Spartans they were then warring against. It was only until the physicians, who were constantly exposed to and treating the ailing masses, started displaying symptoms as well, that they considered contagion as a more likely suspect. It might be a comfort to most of us, in 2021, to know that we’ve advanced significantly since then, both in terms of medicine and technology. We are fully capable of engineering our own vaccines, have a better understanding of how pathogens are transmitted, are better equipped at devising preventive techniques against infection, and generally benefit from the instantaneous updating and informing that social media and digital interactions can afford us. However, these advantages may often come with their fair share of entailments.


On Mental Health


Mental health consequences is one such entailment. In a study conducted by Abbas, Wang, Su, and Ziapour (2021)[5], it was found that people mainly used social media during the COVID-19 pandemic to seek out informational and emotional support. However, in a counterproductive twist, another research found that 64% of participants reported feeling generally distressed by the content they saw on social media regarding COVID-19 (Ahmad & Murad, 2020)[6]. This distress manifested either psychologically, physically or both. Ranked as the most upsetting type of content was fake news about COVID-19 (26.6%). This is a finding that becomes especially interesting when paired with a study conducted by Kouzy et al. (2020)[7], which found that as of February 27, 2021, 24.8% of all posts pertaining to COVID-19 on the social media platform Twitter included misinformation, and 17.4% included unverified information.


The problem with fake news is much larger than you might think. It has actually become so prevalent and far-reaching that many people have started referring to the phenomenon as an infodemic. A portmanteau of ‘information and ‘epidemic’, it has been defined by the World Health Organization (2020) as excessive information propagated in both digital and physical environments which feature false or misleading information[8].


The COVID-19 Infodemic


While the slight deterioration of mental health is an almost expected outcome at this time due to the inherent negative value of experiencing a worldwide health crisis, there is still so much that infodemics can affect in regards to it. For one, media that was merely biased and misleading led to more pronounced psychological distress; potential human and economical consequences such as investing heavily in fake health products were also more likely to happen (Su et al., 2021)[9]. Meanwhile, media coverage that was more severely false and dishonest cultivated undesirable attitudes and mindsets in people, such as that of public distrust. This is a problem by itself; however, the difficulty of this increases tenfold when taking into consideration the mechanism by which anxiety is buffered during the COVID-19 lockdown.


According to Marzouki, Aldossari, and Veltri (2021)[10], people tend to gravitate toward a consensus about a negative event when exposed to the said event — in our case, the pandemic. From this consensus, we draw certain expectations about the event, which may lead to feelings of distress. A shared cognitive appraisal of the situation then follows, as evidenced by the presence of coping mechanisms, which help to alleviate distress felt by the group. This, like any other mechanism of behavior, seems normal enough until one considers how it might play out in a company of misinformed individuals. As false information is integrated early on into their shared appraisal of COVID-19, we are left with an affiliation of people that are, though socially supported and less psychologically distressed, reinforcing to each other all the wrong ideas regarding the ongoing crisis. This is worsened by the possibility that unsuspecting or uninformed individuals outside this group might be lured into their conceptions, as people often lend credibility to any ideal with significant enough backing.


What Can We Do?


Given the information we’ve discussed so far, the main contribution we can make as active social media agents is to do our part to stop the COVID-19 infodemic. Small, additional actions we can adopt that would greatly help in this goal would be to ensure we’re getting our information from verified sources. Moreover, as some 12.6% of content shared by verified sources on social media were still found to be misinformation (Kouzy et al., 2020), it might also be beneficial that we cross-check information from other legitimate references and share on our own platforms only what has been proven and evidenced to be fact. By doing so, we propagate in social media only what needs to be said — nothing more and nothing false that could potentially exacerbate the mental health struggles people would naturally be going through right now.


In the role of receiver, it might also do some good to take breaks from social media every once in a while. Again, while the technology is useful enough in updating us about how the virus, the pandemic, and the world is currently faring, it’s only so helpful up to a certain point. Excessive exposure to social media has been linked to poorer mental health, with negative affect identified as the mediating factor (Zhao & Zhou, 2020)[11]. Additionally, information overload was found to be a predictor of reduced wellbeing during isolation (Fan & Smith, 2021)[12].


A Final Word


Looking for support during the pandemic, either emotional or informational, is standard behavior where any interaction is concerned — not just in social media. After all, the entire experience might be upsetting enough that we as a collective feel encouraged to take matters into our own hands and do the small things we can to improve our standard of living. However, it’s important to realize that our words hold a weight we might not even immediately recognize. In fact, everything we put out there for people to see — our beliefs, our feelings, our considered truths — will affect how the rest of the world will decide to continue on from this point. Your voice has great power, and as we’re constantly reminded, it comes with great responsibility.


References


  1. Merriam-Webster. (n.d.). Disease. In Merriam-Webster.com dictionary. Retrieved August 16, 2021, from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/disease

  2. Infectious diseases - Symptoms and causes. (2021, April 7). Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/infectious-diseases/symptoms-causes/syc-20351173

  3. Horgan, J. (2021, August 15). The Plague at Athens, 430–427 BCE. World History Encyclopedia. https://www.worldhistory.org/article/939/the-plague-at-athens-430-427-bce/

  4. Littman, R. J. (2009). The Plague of Athens: Epidemiology and Paleopathology. Mount Sinai Journal of Medicine: A Journal of Translational and Personalized Medicine, 76(5), 456–467. https://doi.org/10.1002/msj.20137

  5. Abbas, J., Wang, D., Su, Z., & Ziapour, A. (2021). The Role of Social Media in the Advent of COVID-19 Pandemic: Crisis Management, Mental Health Challenges and Implications. Risk Management and Healthcare Policy, Volume 14, 1917–1932. https://doi.org/10.2147/rmhp.s284313

  6. Ahmad, A. R., & Murad, H. R. (2020). The Impact of Social Media on Panic During the COVID-19 Pandemic in Iraqi Kurdistan: Online Questionnaire Study. Journal of Medical Internet Research, 22(5), e19556. https://doi.org/10.2196/19556

  7. Kouzy, R., Abi Jaoude, J., Kraitem, A., El Alam, M. B., Karam, B., Adib, E., Zarka, J., Traboulsi, C., Akl, E. W., & Baddour, K. (2020). Coronavirus Goes Viral: Quantifying the COVID-19 Misinformation Epidemic on Twitter. Cureus, 12(3), e7255. https://doi.org/10.7759/cureus.7255

  8. Infodemic. (2020, December 22). World Health Organization. https://www.who.int/health-topics/infodemic#tab=tab_1

  9. Su, Z., McDonnell, D., Wen, J., Kozak, M., Abbas, J., ŠEgalo, S., Li, X., Ahmad, J., Cheshmehzangi, A., Cai, Y., Yang, L., & Xiang, Y. T. (2021). Mental health consequences of COVID-19 media coverage: the need for effective crisis communication practices. Globalization and Health, 17(1). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12992-020-00654-4

  10. Marzouki, Y., Aldossari, F. S., & Veltri, G. A. (2021). Understanding the buffering effect of social media use on anxiety during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown. Humanities and Social Sciences Communications, 8(1). https://doi.org/10.1057/s41599-021-00724-x

  11. Zhao, N., & Zhou, G. (2020). Social Media Use and Mental Health during the COVID-19 Pandemic: Moderator Role of Disaster Stressor and Mediator Role of Negative Affect. Applied psychology. Health and well-being, 12(4), 1019–1038. https://doi.org/10.1111/aphw.12226

Fan, J., & Smith, A. P. (2021). Information Overload, Wellbeing and COVID-19: A Survey in China. Behavioral Sciences, 11(5), 62. https://doi.org/10.3390/bs11050062

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