Americans "primed for misinformation" during coronavirus pandemic, journalist warns

How coronavirus misinformation can spread

Many American residents under stay-at-home or shelter-in-place orders are turning to social media more often than they normally would to stay connected and keep up with the latest news coming from sources trying to contain the coronavirus pandemic. However, the increased time online also means more chances to stumble across misinformation which, in the case of the coronavirus, could be deadly. 

"We're absolutely primed for misinformation," said Wired editor-in-chief Nick Thompson during an interview with "CBS This Morning: Saturday." He explained that the current flow of misinformation seems "magnified" compared to similar panics of the past "because we're so worried and so looking for anything that will help, any sign of a cure or anything we can tweet about." 

Thompson pointed to the recent debate over the claim that ibuprofen worsens the effects of the coronavirus. 

"A medical research group puts out the way a special enzyme might interact with COVID-19, and perhaps there's another doctor who says, well, maybe there's a connection between ibuprofen and this enzyme," he said. "You have two sort of thoughts but no studies."

He explained how something as small as a single tweet sent without harmful intent can spread that information around the world before conclusive studies could be performed and replicated.

Thompson described how that piece of unproven information then leads people to panic buy alternatives such as acetaminophen, not only turning to a drug with no studied links to coronavirus but also unnecessarily exposing themselves to the possibility of infection. 

He credited Silicon Valley and social media platforms for their efforts to combat the spread of COVID-19 misinformation, commending them for "proactive" and "positive" things. 

Search engine Google now has a button on its site for visitors that encourages them to "do the five," which takes them to a site with the latest global numbers and five basic preventative measures. Instagram's popular "Story" feature encouraged users to stay inside the house and practice social distancing. YouTube's algorithms are working to push legitimate coronavirus news towards the top of search, burying videos suspected to have false information. 

Thompson said his personal favorite was the messaging application WhatsApp, which allows users to text a number to the World Health Organization in order to receive "all kinds of great information."

"They're trying to combat misinformation which is always hard and lots gets through. And they're trying to proactively provide positive, useful information," he said.