Misinformation About COVID-19

Misinformation is to information as disease is to health. Mechanisms break.

Posted Aug 14, 2020

Fighting the COVID-19 pandemic requires information about the causes, transmission, and treatment of the deadly disease. But action has been hindered by a plague of misinformation with claims such as the following:

  • 99% of COVID-19 cases are totally harmless.
  • COVID-19 can be treated with hydroxychloroquine.
  • COVID-19 is caused by 5G telecommunication networks. 
  • The novel coronavirus spreads by eating bat soup. 
  • Masks deprive people of oxygen.

A Wikipedia article lists many more examples. 

The topic of misinformation generates important questions for psychology and philosophy. What is misinformation and how does it differ from information and disinformation? Why are people so prone to acquire and spread misinformation? How can misinformation be blocked and corrected? 

Misinformation is information that is incorrect or misleading, and disinformation is misinformation that is intentionally misleading. But what is information? There is no standard definition that applies to all the different carriers of information that include utterances, sentences, gestures, pictures, patterns of neural firing, computational processes, and genetic structures made of DNA. All of these operate with mechanisms for representation, collection, storage, retrieval, evaluation, transformation, sending, and receiving. I will illustrate the eight mechanisms using neural patterns. 

Representation allows carriers to stand for situations in the world. For example, different groups of neurons are tuned, either innately or by learning, to different aspects of the world such as colors. Such tuning enables collection of new information by interaction with the world; for example when the retina sends signals from the eye to the brain where storage takes place by generation of synaptic connections. For ongoing use, the information must be retrieved from storage, which the brain accomplishes by firing the neurons based on their synaptic connections. 

Whether a carrier of information is collected, stored, and retrieved depends on its relevance to an organism’s goals such as survival and reproduction, where relevance is assessed by an evaluation mechanism. In brains, evaluation is largely performed by emotional brain areas such as the amygdala, nucleus accumbens, and ventromedial prefrontal cortex but can be also done more rigorously using reasoning. Information processing also includes making inferences that transform carriers into new and useful ones using mechanisms that range from learning by association to analogical reasoning. For many species of organisms such as humans, information is communicated between individuals which requires mechanisms for both sending and receiving different kinds of carriers. Humans have neural processes for producing utterances as well as for interpreting the utterances of others.

I propose that misinformation is to information as disease is to health. Just as disease results from breakdowns in the bodily mechanisms that support health, so misinformation results from breakdowns in the psychological and social mechanisms that support information. The novel coronavirus causes disease by disrupting how cells, tissues, and organs carry out the important functions of respiration, digestion, and blood circulation. Similarly, misinformation about the virus spreads through disruptions in the collection, evaluation, and transmission of evidence. 

In another blog post, I described five characteristics of good evidence: reliability, intersubjectivity, repeatability, robustness, and causal correlation with the world. Almost all studies reported in leading scientific journals satisfy these by sound practices of representation and collection of information. In contrast, many bogus claims about COVID-19 such as that it is usually harmless are not based on evidence—they are just made up. 

Peer-reviewed scientific articles about disease are subject to stringent evaluation of their experimental and theoretical claims. In contrast, the evaluation of misinformation is usually based only on whether it suits the purposes of the communicator. For example, President Trump likely wants to minimize the damage of COVID-19 because it hurts his chances of re-election. Psychologists call this kind of thinking motivated reasoning

Because of insufficient lockdowns and too early re-openings, the USA currently has more than 1000 deaths a day from COVID-19. In contrast, Canada (with 1/9 the population) has around 10 daily deaths thanks to more aggressive public health measures such as mask-wearing.  

The communication of information in groups of people also depends on evaluation. Senders decide what is important enough to pass on to others, and receivers decide whether the message is worth paying attention to. Scientific information is subject to evaluation by reviewers and editors concerning whether it is sound and worth publishing. Responsible news sources also evaluate the quality of information before transmitting it. But misinformation about COVID-19 is spread by biased political speeches and control-free social media such as Twitter and Facebook. The social mechanism for communication of reliable information has broken down, just as in COVID-19 the biological mechanism for breathing has broken down. 

Diseases are treated by restoring the biological mechanisms required for health, for example by killing germs and aiding breathing. Misinformation needs to be treated by restoring effective mechanisms for collecting, evaluating, and transmitting information.