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‘Fake news’ during an infectious disease epidemic could make the outbreak worse

Published: 14 February 2020

Harmful health advice, or ‘fake news’, circulating on social media and in person during an infectious disease epidemic could make the outbreak worse, new research has shown. However, reducing the amount of harmful information circulating in a population mitigated the influence of the bad advice.

The researchers, funded by the NIHR Health Protection Research Units in Emergency Preparedness and Response and Gastrointestinal Infections, say their findings could be useful for dealing with the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak.

The researchers focused on three contagious diseases - influenza, monkeypox and norovirus - across two studies. They used computer simulations of the spread of these diseases to test the effect of sharing dangerously wrong information on human health during a disease outbreak.

In the first study, focusing on influenza, norovirus and monkeypox, the researchers built a computer agent-based model: a computer simulation that predicts the spread of a contagious disease by capturing the behaviour of individuals in a population.

They modelled sharing of health advice classified as useful or harmful by individuals, and subsequent risky behaviours that can spread contagious disease, such as not washing hands and sharing food with ill people. When building the model, they looked at how different diseases are spread, incubation periods and recovery times. The model also took into account studies of real behaviour on the speed of social media posting and real-life information sharing.

The researchers found that reducing the amount of harmful advice being circulated by just 10 percentage points - from 50% to 40% - mitigated the influence of bad advice on the outcomes of a disease outbreak.

The researchers also investigated strategies to fight fake news - such as drowning bad information with good information and ‘immunising’ people against bad information though better education. They found that making at least 20% of the population unable to share or believe harmful advice had the same positive effect.

The second study focused on the spread of norovirus in a population. The researchers found that even if 90% of the health advice is good, some disease will still circulate.

When they looked at what reduction in sharing was required to give the population ‘immunity’ to bad news, the model suggested any reduction in bad advice leads to a subsequent reduction in the outbreak’s impact. This encouraging finding could be useful for those dealing with the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak.

Researcher Dr Julii Brainard said: “While we used very sophisticated simulation models, it is important to remember that this is not an observational study based on real behaviour.

“The efficacy of implementing such strategies to fight fake news needs to be tested in real world settings, with costs and benefits ideally compared with real world disease reduction.”

Read more about the research into the impact of fake news on disease outbreaks from the press release on Eureka Alert.

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