COMMENT:

Since the announcement of a global pandemic, everyone has been trying to learn more about this novel coronavirus known as Sars-cov-2. Without a degree in virology, or access to scientific journals, social media has been the educator of choice to keep us informed and updated.

While YouTube videos may be easy to understand and quick to watch, new research shows that over one-quarter of their most popular Covid-19 information videos contain fake or misleading information. So what can be done to stop these videos causing serious harm?

Every day new research is being published about Covid-19. Internet search engines show a worried public are searching for questions including: How does it travel, who is at risk and how long does it survive on surfaces?

Desperate for clear and easy to understand answers to help them make changes to their behaviour they tend to click on the top google hits rather than heading to official sources like the CDC or WHO websites.

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While it may look professional, online content can be made by anyone including scammers and pranksters. Even politicians have been guilty of using social media to start misleading rumours about Covid-19.

Government bodies have worked hard to put out informative and evidence-based documents on their websites, however in many cases these static pages have tended to look more like school worksheets. Rather than try to navigate official sources, billions of people instead trust social media as their Covid educator. With well-produced videos and beautiful infographics their information is quick to digest and easy to understand.

This week research published in the journal BMJ Global Health looked into the accuracy and quality of information produced this year in the most popular coronavirus videos on YouTube and found that they are not as accurate as you might hope.

Using the most viewed Covid-19 videos published in English up until March 21st the researchers created a scoring system called the Covid-19 Specific Score or CSS for short. The system awarded one point for exclusively factual information on each of the following: how the virus spreads, typical symptoms for those infected, prevention of infection, possible treatments and epidemiology.

Videos that were made by professional and government agencies scored significantly higher for accuracy, usability and quality across the board compared to any of the other sources. These videos were the lowest when it came to number of views at only 2 per cent of the 257 million total views in the study. Newspapers were also low on the list with only 5 per cent of the views recorded.

The most popular video sources included network news channels which held 29% of views, consumers at 22 per cent and entertainment news at 21 per cent.

While over 70 per cent of the videos contained factual information, over one in four videos contained misleading, inaccurate and potentially dangerous information. Together these inaccurate videos have been viewed over 62 million times worldwide.

The misinformation included conspiracy theories including claims that pharmaceutical companies already had a Covid cure and that a stronger strain of the virus was in Iran and Italy as well as racist and discriminatory remarks.

While factually inaccurate, these popular videos were all professionally produced making them look like credible sources. They also often mixed both truth and misleading medical myths together making it hard to differentiate the false information from things that were true.

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The power of social media in shaping the public understanding of scientific concepts is huge. Sadly so is their power to push fake and dangerous messaging.
The bigger question is, whether or not governments are willing to partner with celebrity gossip channels to try and get their messages across before more potential harm comes from misinformation.

Covid19.govt.nz: The Government's official Covid-19 advisory website