How misinformation undermines Australia’s COVID-19 response


The current global climate of misinformation and myths about the origin, cure of, and measures required to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic has mired public acceptance of and compliance with governmental interventions and personal precautions.

Now, a new study published in the preprint server medRxiv* in August 2020 examines the prevalence of and reasons for such beliefs in several Australian communities.

The Problem with Misinformation

False information is not hindered by the need for accuracy and reliability, unlike accurate health information. As a result, the latter tends to be more restrained, factual, and less persuasive. On the other hand, misinformation is “typically compelling, persuasive, and emotive.” It, therefore, makes its way to the heart much more rapidly, and in a far greater number of cases compared to the facts.

This can act as a deadweight as governments and health organizations are trying to rein in the virus because misinformation not only shapes but also reinforces false beliefs and attitudes within a social network. If people see the threat as low or recommended behaviors as ineffective, they become less willing to follow such interventions. Thus, it is crucial to understand these obstacles in order to bring out new and more effective messages in public health regarding the current virus strategies.

Measuring the Impact of Misinformation

The University of Sydney study employs a prospective approach over time, in three waves, beginning in April 2020, a month after the first non-pharmacological interventions (NPIs) were put in place in Australia, namely, physical distancing and quarantine. The COVID-19 incidence was rising at that point.

The first wave included over 4,300 participants, of whom about 60% completed the second wave questionnaire three weeks later, and 43% the third wave questionnaire at six weeks from baseline. At the last time point, some restrictions were being relaxed, and cases were dropping. However, it is worth noting that cases are again rising in some parts of the country.

Wave 1

Even after one month of hearing about the spread of COVID-19, around 14% to 15% of people had deep reservations about the efficacy of vaccines, the actual threat of COVID-19, and the need for the current level of restrictions.

Waves 2 and 3

Later phases of the survey show the same trend persisting over time, with more people believing that the threat of COVID-19 is out of proportion to reality. However, fewer people now believed that herd immunity benefits were being hidden from the public. A significant minority continued to believe that restrictions were more substantial than required.

Why People Believe False Information

In wave 3, the researchers identified three major components of the myths regarding the pandemic, namely, the management and prevention of symptoms, the cause and the spread of the virus, and myths held about building immunity and curing the viral infection. These accounted for about 19%, 17%, and 16% of the variance regarding these items.

The researchers found that younger males with lower levels of education, and non-English speaking at home, were more likely to hold such beliefs. When these were adjusted for, such attitudes were linked to lower levels of familiarity with digital health, feelings that COVID-19 is less of a threat than commonly thought, and lack of trust in government and scientists alike.

Specific Myths

Over a fifth of wave 3 participants thought that the virus was killed by hot water or ultraviolet radiation, while 13% thought that ibuprofen worsens the illness. Again, 12% thought that the virus was bioengineered from a Wuhan laboratory, while 4% thought that parcels from China would spread the virus. Vitamin C and hydroxychloroquine were thought to be effective treatments by ~4% and 2%, respectively.

Implications

The study shows that the spread of misinformation is associated with certain psychological and intellectual attributes. The study was not representative, but the participants represent many segments of Australian society. Compared to the rates identified in several international studies, the prevalence is lower, but this varies somewhat from earlier findings of an Australian survey held in May 2020. This showed that 12% to 77% of people believed such misinformation.

The pattern of wrong beliefs and attitudes is similar to that found in America and the UK, where the younger generation, and particularly men in America, favor conspiracy theories about the origin of the pandemic.

The most important lesson from this study is that there is a significant gap in the coverage of the population by health information related to lower education levels and unfamiliarity with the English language. This underlines the need to consider such differences as well as to reduce the complexity of health information on government media.

Going Forward

Earlier research by this team has shown that some of these groups do not know the symptoms of COVID-19 or preventive behaviors. Thus, these findings confirm those of others, which show how important it is to alter the current form in which health information is presented by official health organizations and governments to impact these groups. The changes should affect the language, style, and platform of delivery.

Another vital aspect to address is the building of digital health literacy skills, helping people to build a healthy questioning attitude towards false health information. This approach, called ‘prebunking,’ may be more useful than debunking since it allows people to resist such attempts to mold their beliefs and behaviors wrongly.

And finally, governments and health authorities should partner with other organizations that have the public trust, to make sure that the right information, presented appropriately, reaches the people to both inform and correct false beliefs. The researchers point out that the most effective corrective measures incorporate explanations about why false information or belief cannot be sustained. Such attempts do successfully improve the accuracy of future beliefs even after being exposed to misinformation.

The study concludes that governmental and news agencies have the best shot at correcting such false beliefs during an epidemic, and should treat this role as an essential one. Failure to do so not only radically undermines governmental measures but can lead to other serious consequences of adopting unproven remedies.

The researchers quote an earlier study (van der Meer, T.G. and Y. Jin, 2020): “It will require ‘a sustained and coordinated effort by independent fact-checkers, independent news media, platform companies, trusted spokespeople and public authorities to help the public understand and navigate the pandemic.”

*Important Notice

medRxiv publishes preliminary scientific reports that are not peer-reviewed and, therefore, should not be regarded as conclusive, guide clinical practice/health-related behavior, or treated as established information.



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Twitter breach troubling, undermines trust, experts say


A breach in Twitter’s security that allowed hackers to break into the accounts of leaders and technology moguls is one of the worst attacks in recent years and may shake trust in a platform politicians and CEOs use to communicate with the public, experts said Thursday.

The ruse discovered Wednesday included bogus tweets from Barack Obama, Joe Biden, Mike Bloomberg and a number of tech billionaires including Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates and Tesla CEO Elon Musk. Celebrities Kanye West and his wife, Kim Kardashian West, were also hacked.

Employees targeted

Hackers used social engineering to target some of Twitter’s employees and then gained access to the high-profile accounts. The attackers sent out tweets from the accounts of the public figures, offering to send $2,000 for every $1,000 sent to an anonymous Bitcoin address.

Cybersecurity experts say such a breach could have dire consequences since the attackers were tweeting from verified, globally influential accounts with millions of followers.

“If you receive a tweet from a verified account, belonging to a well-known and therefore trusted person, you can no longer assume it’s really from them,” said Michael Gazeley, managing director of cybersecurity firm Network Box.

Reacting to the breach, Twitter swiftly deleted the tweets and locked down the accounts to investigate. In the process, it prevented verified users from sending out tweets for several hours.

The company said Thursday it has taken “significant steps to limit access to internal systems and tools.”

Many celebrities, politicians and business leaders often use Twitter as a public platform to make statements. U.S. President Donald Trump, for example, regularly uses Twitter to post about national and geopolitical matters, and his account is closely followed by media, analysts and governments around the world.

Twitter faces an uphill battle in regaining people’s confidence, Gazeley said. For a start, it needs to figure out how exactly the accounts were hacked and show the vulnerabilities have been fixed, he said.

“If key employees at Twitter were tricked, that’s actually a serious cybersecurity problem in itself,” he said. “How can one of the world’s most used social media platforms have such weak security, from a human perspective?”

Serious consequences

Rachel Tobac, CEO of Socialproof Security, said that the breach appeared to be largely financially motivated. But such an attack could cause more serious consequences.

“Can you imagine if they had taken over a world leader’s account, and tweeted out a threat of violence to another country’s leader?” asked Tobac, a social engineering hacker who specializes in providing training for companies to protect themselves from such breaches.

Social engineering attacks typically target human weaknesses to exploit networks and online platforms. Companies can guard themselves against such attacks by beefing up multi-factor authentication — where users have to present multiple pieces of evidence as authentication before being allowed to log into a system, Tobac said.

Such a process could include having a physical token that an employee must have with them, on top of a password, before they can log into a corporate or other private system. Other methods include installing technical tools to monitor for suspicious insider activities and reducing the number of people who have access to an administrative panel, Tobac said.

Call for co-operation

U.S. Senator Josh Hawley called on Twitter to co-operate with authorities including the Department of Justice and the FBI to secure the site.

“I am concerned that this event may represent not merely a co-ordinated set of separate hacking incidents but rather a successful attack on the security of Twitter itself,” he said.

He added that millions of users relied on Twitter not just to send tweets but also communicate privately via direct messaging.

“A successful attack on your system’s servers represents a threat to all of your users’ privacy and data security,” said Hawley.





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