Misinformation in a Crisis

Misinformation in a Crisis
(AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)
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We can always expect to read things in the media (traditional or social) that just are not true, but misinformation is especially problematic during a time of crisis. Unfortunately, as we have seen with COVID-19, the situation is developing so rapidly that people are jumping to conclusions, filling in the unknowns and letting fear drive the communication, and it has resulted in misinformation about the novel coronavirus. In times of crisis it is important to get the facts straight, acknowledge what is unknown instead of filling in the blanks, and communicating to the public accordingly. 

Recently, headline after headline warn of the dangers of patients with COVID-19 taking ibuprofen. This myth is believed to have been started by French minister Oliver Véran, based on remarks by a French doctor who cited four instances of young patients with COVID-19 who developed serious symptoms after taking ibuprofen in the early stages of the disease. This was then picked up by news outlets around the globe and reported as fact by many in the mainstream media. From traditional media to the social media, this misinformation was pushed by professionals in the press and well-meaning ordinary citizens fearing someone they knew would die from ibuprofen hastened COVID-19.

The problem? There was no scientific evidence to support such a broad assertion. 

It was left to the European Medicines Agency to issue a statement explaining that there was no evidence to support that taking ibuprofen or other nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs would make COVID-19 symptoms worse. While there are conflicting perspectives, the medical professionals need to consider particular patients under their care to actually and accurately make assessments. The broad stroke comments or misinformation could have discouraged people who needed anti-inflammatory drugs from taking it, creating a situation of unnecessary suffering during an already difficult time, not to mention contributing to anxiety and the panic that people are already so susceptible to.

It is also difficult in times of crisis to sort out what is scientifically accurate and who may be simply speculating out of fear or worse, to possibly push an agenda. It might appear to some that the adage of “never let a crisis go to waste” is being taken seriously.

While it is certainly a good idea to be cautious during this pandemic and for some people (especially on the advice of medical professionals) to take a break from certain personal practices, people should be concerned about the media taking measured statements and incomplete information that is still being analyzed by members of the medical community and running with them full steam ahead. Examples of this can be seen in Forbes running the headline “Smokers At Higher Risk Of Severe COVID-19 During Coronavirus Outbreak,” and the Philadelphia Inquirer titling a recent article “Coronavirus poses extra risks for smokers and vapers.” It’s also been repeated, without conclusive scientific evidence, by elected officials like New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who recently stated “If you are a smoker or a vaper that does make you more vulnerable.”

Again, we can all agree that it is good to be cautious during the uncertain times and action to protect ourselves and others should be taken based on as sure-as-possible information and data, but just like with the story about ibuprofen, individuals, the media and our political leaders should make responsible statements based on professional analysis and evidence. Speculation based on fear, myth, or lack of due diligence during chaotic times can become dangerous misinformation that quickly spreads among an already worried population.

Some misinformed reports have become so widespread, that doctors have begun speaking out. Dr. Samuel Allen, a pulmonologist at Beaumont Health speaking to fears associated with vaping and COVID-19, recently told the Detroit Free Press, "There's really no scientific evidence that links the two.” Dr. Charles Gardner, with the Foundation for a Smoke Free-World, also highlighted CDC data that showed only 1% of COVID-19 patients needing ICU care were smokers, despite the fact that 14% of Americans smoke.

Dr. David Gonzalez is an assistant professor of public administration and organizational leadership with Brandman University’s School of Business and Professional Studies.

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