False information has boomed alongside coronavirus cases, as inaccuracies plug gaps left by medical unknowns and global lockdown regulations spur COVID-denialism. Misinformation — false information shared unintentionally — reached new, harmful heights, while agents of disinformation — deliberately fabricated information — have seen audiences surge.
For years, researchers have revealed how far-right conspiracy theories radicalise people globally, sowing division and undermining democracy. Most recently, such online networks coaxed along the pro-Trump US Capitol riot in which five died. While some have long warned of misinformation’s threat to public health, only recently has it emerged so visibly as a key, universal threat, with COVID-19 vaccines helping historic anti-vaccine movements find new messengers for their deceptions.
With unreliable news shown to travel faster than factual stories, the problem presents a major threat to democracy and public health. Misinformation sources got six times the number of likes, shares and interactions on Facebook than trustworthy news outlets during the 2020 US elections. Misleading content has also diminished confidence in COVID-19 vaccines. “Unfortunately misinformation gets a lot of engagement because it’s sensational and it can be targeted at people who are likely to believe it,” says Matt Skibinski, general manager for NewsGuard, which tracks online misinformation and rates the credibility of publishers.