Annenberg Radio

Spread facts, not fear

The COVID-19 pandemic has opened the door for a rapid spread of misinformation online

From meme pages to Q-Anon conspiracy theories, social media has become a super spreader for misinformation online. Leanna Faulk explores this trend with a misinformation expert and a skeptical USC student.


In January last year, residents of the Lorenzo student apartments got an interesting email.

“I got an email from the manager at the Lorenzo where I was living at the time telling me that there was a case that had been identified, diagnosed, and I think they said sent to the hospital. I do recall several people saying ‘oh, coronavirus at the Lorenzo like, of course it would happen to us,’ kind of thing.”

That was Kirk Hubbarb. He’s a junior studying business at USC. Hubbard was throwing a football with some friends when he, and the other residents at the Lorenzo were alerted of a positive COVID-19 case at the apartment.

When this happened, COVID-19 was not the global pandemic that it is today. The first case in the U.S. was reported just six days prior. There were no masks, no social distancing and no Anthony Fauci.

“There is so much misinformation.”

Information was limited & misinformation was spreading almost faster than the virus itself.

“At that time, there was just so much misinformation that I took the notice really with a grain of salt to say that I kind of doubted it at that moment.”

Hubbard was smart to have doubts. Later that evening, residents got a second email from the apartment managers, pretty much saying JK.

“It was 8:40 when we got the original email, and then 10 o’clock pm on January 27, we got the false alarm email.”

One hour and twenty minutes is all it took for the fake COVID email to explode online. Screenshots of the false case announcement circulated through every meme page and group chat you could think of. It’s a barstool dream come true.

“Snapchat stories or Instagram stories, there were a good number of screenshots annotated with, you know, emojis, or whatever nonsense meme you could put on it. And then beyond that, to the group chats, both people in and out of USC in the LA area, were reaching out to me kind of to comment on the issue or forward me a screenshot of it. So certainly from I saw maybe a dozen or more just within that span.”

Over a year later and the spread of misinformation on COVID-19 continues online. Karishma Sharma, a PhD student in the USC computer science department, says the transition from in-person interactions to online led to an increase in social media use and communicating online.

“So that means there is a lot more discussion happening and in the tweets that we collect are just a random sample of all that’s out there. And even that random sample is extremely large.”

Sharma published a report last year exploring trends in coronavirus related misinformation online. Of her one percent sample of Twitter users, she found over a million Tweets being published every day, all related to COVID-19.

Recently, she’s noticed an increase in misinformation linked to the vaccine.

“Especially right now for like the COVID vaccines, there is a lot of misinformation and distorted facts about the vaccine effectiveness or whether there is the side effects of vaccine. Like definitely there are some reported side effects. But the way the facts are distorted through these misinformation articles, it can create a bias towards not taking the vaccine.”

No one believes the truth when the lie is more entertaining.

Clickbait headlines and just plain fake news surrounding vaccine risks are being posted and reposted by millions of people online, despite the CDC’s constant admittance that the odds of any life-threatening effects are virtually non-existent.

“There is a lot more potential for spreading conspiracies and fear and paranoia about whether things work, whether things don’t work and spreading misleading, politically biased and anti science information, which can confuse people and make them more susceptible to taking bad actions which could increase the spread of the virus or reduce the effectiveness of policy measures.”

It’s hard for most people to keep up with facts of COVID-19 when they are constantly changing. When trying to verify information online, Sharma says it’s safe to consider these three things:

“Distinguish between low quality sources and high quality sources based on how well they are cited, what kind of scientific backing they have, and how much they support their claims with accurate facts and citations.”

Kirk Hubbard says the Lorenzo email scandal gave him an opportunity to look at social media with a higher degree of cynicism.

“If you see a screenshot of the news or a headline or something, you need to take that with cynicism that it was actually a headline. And furthermore, you need to take into note the question of whether that headline actually regards the problem at hand.”

With new variants emerging and vaccines put on pause, it’s safe to say the coronavirus pandemic is far from over. However, Hubbard believes there are lessons to be learned in how we deal with information online in these unprecedented times.

“Hopefully the vaccination rate stays above the misinformation rate. And we can emerge out of this a little bit wiser as to how we all deal with crises. Hopefully, that’s the ideal.”