Ibuprofen and Covid-19: How credible sources can drive misinformation during a pandemic

  • Many untrue claims about the new coronavirus have been made since the start of the pandemic
  • This has led to misinformation, fake news and hoaxes being circulated in social media
  • However, two authors stress that official sources must play an important role in disseminating information and deactivating misinformation

As the world battles Covid-19, the disease caused by SARS-CoV-2, people are searching for factual information that could help save lives. But what happens when misinformation gains momentum and has a huge impact because credible sources start propagating it?

According to UOC doctoral student Sergi Xaudiera and Ana Sofía Cardenal, a researcher at the Faculty of Law and Political Science, it can have deadly consequences.

Their research, published in the Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) Misinformation Review, centres on misinformation during emergency situations, and hones in on a tweet by the French Health Minister, Olivier Verán, during March, when Europe was experiencing the early stages of the pandemic.

Verán advised patients with Covid-19 not to take ibuprofen, an anti-inflammatory drug with analgesic and antipyretic properties, warning that it could lead to mortality among Covid-19 patients.

Despite having insufficient scientific backing, the information spread all over the world.

From WhatsApp to a Minister's tweet

Health24 reported on Verán’s tweet, wherein the Minister stated that anti-inflammatories, such as ibuprofen, can be "an aggravating factor" in Covid-19 infection. After his tweet was posted, panic ensued and discussions among medical experts quickly followed, with the World Health Organization (WHO) later tweeting that they do not advise against the use of the medication.

This false news about ibuprofen initially started as a WhatsApp voice message in Germany, then made it onto the Minister’s Twitter account, and, over a period of two weeks, spread to France, Spain, the Netherlands, and Italy.

The UOC researchers point out that while the voice note quickly lost credibility, since the source couldn’t be determined, it was credible sources, such as political representatives – in this case, Veran – and media outlets that gave prominence to the misinformation, and was the reason it spread between France and Germany. “Until now, most misinformation campaigns were instigated by unauthoritative users or partisan media.

“However, this case stands out for the fact that the fake news was echoed by political representatives (specifically the French Health Minister) and respectable media outlets, who took it to a broader audience," Xaudiera explained.

The power of local news media

"Misinformation supported by reliable sources is particularly dangerous because their very credibility induces people to accept the recommendations without doubting or questioning the information on which they are based,” the researchers wrote, adding that when this happens during emergency situations, such as the Covid-19 pandemic, they may have irreversible consequences.

Although the WHO and the European Medicines Agency dismissed the information as untrue, the authors mention that the fake information continued to spread incessantly – until it was questioned and later denied by each region's official channels.

For this reason, the authors highlight the power of local news media in spreading information. Delving further into the effectiveness of local official sources in discrediting fake news, they studied a specific case in Catalonia, Spain.

They found that a large majority of Catalan users who shared messages that contributed to discrediting misinformation were following official channels. They explain that the onus should therefore be on local channels to do thorough fact-checking.

"Misinformation is counteracted most effectively by local sources. When a false narrative starts to circulate in a region, it is the local channels that must help in checking the information and exposing it as fake when necessary.

“We have seen that following local official channels has a positive effect. However, when it is these channels that are putting out fake information, the region's citizens may become impervious to accurate information," Xaudiera said.

Checking info from several sources

Xaudiera and Cardenal recommend that we’re faced with fake information, we should view it critically and check with not just one, but several official sources from different, geographically separate origins, and view the information we receive critically.

They also propose changes on an institutional level, including changes to cybersecurity from an information and communication viewpoint.

"Until now, cybersecurity was seen purely as a technology issue. However, these cases show that the threat involves much more than technology and the social aspects must be studied as well," Xaudiera said.

Fake news and SA: how have we fared?

According to Professor Herman Wasserman, director of UCT’s Centre for Film and Media Studies (CFMS), who has been researching fake news for several years, South Africa has, generally, done a fairly good job of informing the public about the state of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Speaking to UCT News, Wasserman said that the South African media has “mostly [trodden] a careful path” between collaborating with the government where justified (such as reporting on the country's lockdown measures) and monitoring government’s power through, for example, “asking critical questions about some of the lockdown regulations [and] abuses of power by the military”.

Wasserman also mentioned the importance of being critical about the information we receive:

“I think the most important rule for the public is to always be sceptical about the information they receive on social media and messaging platforms, to scrutinise it carefully, and to cross-check it with other, authoritative sources to check the message’s veracity. Don’t share if in doubt,” he said.

Some tips to spot fake news

Health24 previously noted that misinformation that includes wrongful medical advice will likely continue to circulate for as long as we battle the endemic. 

However, before believing the fake news and forwarding it to your contacts, and potentially creating chaos and confusion, there are some quick ways to verify the authenticity of the message: 

  • Check if the information is available on trustworthy news sites, or the government, or the National Institute for Communicable Diseases' (NICD) website or social media channels. If not, it is likely to be false.
  • Have a look at this News24 article that has been updated with the latest "fake articles" and other hoaxes doing the rounds.
  • Poynter.org also allows for fact-checking of coronavirus news, and is updated regularly. 
  • Does the message contain bad grammar or spelling errors? Reputable sources will always ensure their information is conveyed in clear, correct English.

READ | Coronavirus in SA: All the confirmed cases

READ | An expert breaks down a viral message you've likely seen - 'advice' from a UK 'nurse' on Covid-19

READ | More social media use, more fake Covid news

Image: Pexels

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