Fake news: misinformation and COVID-19

Written by: Ben Caldwell and Rosie Lobley

The growing ubiquity of the internet in the last few decades has seen a corresponding rise in the spread of misinformation, particularly across social media platforms. This has only become more pronounced during the COVID-19 pandemic, as the demand for new information has rocketed.

The inclusion of misleading data or erroneous conclusions in news articles and published research can be either inadvertent or deliberate. In the former case, journalists may not wholly understand the implications of a piece or research or may not be fully aware of the reliability of their source; while researchers may draw conclusions in good faith from data which they do not know to be flawed. In cases of deliberate misinformation, bad actors are driven by motivations including financial gain; overarching ideology; or simply the need to drive clicks to a ‘news’ website through sensationalised claims.

During a global pandemic, incisive, accurate, timely scientific information is essential. Publicised misinformation around the causes of and potential treatments for COVID-19, and more recently inaccurate claims about the vaccine, lead to legitimate harm. Pharma manufacturers, healthcare practitioners and clinical researchers need to know that their work will be published and publicised through reputable outlets, without the need for exaggerated or misleading statements. Publication planning is a key factor in ensuring this.

Taking all this and other prevailing factors into account, we have produced a white paper examining in depth the causes and harms of medical misinformation and potential ways to mitigate against it. We explore key topics including the role of the changing news landscape in driving the spread of ‘fake news’; the use and abuse of preprint papers; the impact of misinformation on patient hesitancy around the COVID-19 vaccine; and the potential need for structural reform of the peer review system.

The full white paper can be read at PMHub here.