The epidemiology of misinformation

Philip Ball:

After Covid-19 was first identified in early January, the tools and techniques of science and medicine were engaged with unprecedented urgency to tackle the biology of the pathogenic coronavirus, the epidemiology of its spread, and possibilities for potential treatments and eventual cure. But in parallel with this energetic search for reliable yet elusive facts and remedies, we’ve also seen the lightning spread of Covid-19-related falsehoods—a phenomenon the WHO has called the coronavirus “infodemic.”

There has been a boom in conspiracy theories—the idea, for example, that the illness is in fact caused by the 5G network weakening the immune system with “radiation.” In defiance of the evidence, the US President and his circle have implied that the virus originated in a Chinese laboratory, and the Chinese in turn have encouraged rumours that the Americans brought it to Wuhan. Prominent commentators pursuing political agendas (or merely attention) have rounded on scientific results as if these were just one more opinion they didn’t like. The media and politicians have shown themselves pitifully vulnerable to falsehoods that pander to their agendas—or even actively willing to create them. Even after several years in which “fake news” has set the rhythm of insurgencies, elections and referendums, it is remarkable to witness just how contagious the Covid-19 infodemic is proving.

The pandemic underlines—again—the growing problems in our information ecosystem, this time in a field where falsehood can be (literally) lethal. It is acting as a lens that brings into focus one of the most urgent challenges of our times. We (most of us) will survive the virus, but it is far from clear that democracies can survive the longer-term destabilisation of objective truth. If we want a world where major events can be discussed and debated on a basis of agreed and reliable facts, then we have no choice but to grapple with the epidemiology of misinformation.