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Popular COVID-19 videos on YouTube misinform the public

False or misleading information in some of YouTube’s most popular COVID-19 videos has had more than 62 million views.

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A recent study investigates the popularity of misleading COVID-19 videos on YouTube.

There is some mysterious magic behind what makes information take root on the internet, and it apparently has nothing to do with accuracy.

A study that BMJ Global Health recently published has found that 1 in 4 of the most viewed YouTube videos discussing SARS-CoV-2 contain misleading or inaccurate information.

The dissemination of inaccurate or deliberately misleading information continues to hamper the containment of the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

While plenty of good information about the novel coronavirus is available on YouTube, nonfactual or misleading videos seem to be just as appealing to online audiences.

Earlier research found social media platforms to be of mixed value during the swine flu (HIN1), Zika, and Ebola pandemics, offering both helpful and unhelpful information. In undertaking the new study, researchers were interested to return to this topic following the “rapid evolution and increasing usage of social media.”

YouTube is the second most popular site on the internet, after Google, and many people habitually consult this informational resource.

The researchers focused on a specific day — March 21, 2020 — identifying the most viewed relevant videos on the platform through keyword searches for the terms “coronavirus” and “COVID-19.”

After removing duplicate content, a list of 150 videos remained. Of these, the researchers deemed 69 (46%) eligible for analysis. This final set of videos had received a total of 257, 804,146 views.

The researchers used two validated scoring systems in their analysis: modified DISCERN and modified JAMA. They also added a third of their own: a COVID-19 specific score, or CSS, based on scoring systems that scientists had developed for previous outbreaks.

For each video, the team awarded a CSS point for the presence of exclusively factual information regarding how the virus spreads, how to prevent it from spreading, typical symptoms, possible treatments, and the epidemiology of the disease.

Overall, 27.5% (19) of the videos contained false or misleading information. Entertainment news was the source for about one-third of the problematic videos, with network and internet news sources each contributing about one-quarter of them.

Videos that unaffiliated individuals had uploaded represented about 13%. Together, the videos received 24% of the views for the entire study set, which equated to 62,042,609 views.

“This is particularly alarming when considering the immense viewership of these videos,” say the study authors in their paper.

They also provide some examples of the statements in these videos:

  • “Coronavirus only affects immunocompromised, cancer patients, and older people.”
  • “The pharmaceutical companies have a cure but won’t sell it, so everyone is dying.”
  • “A stronger strain of the virus is in Iran and Italy.”
  • “The world is controlled by a cult. This cult wants to control everyone. These people are the 1% and use an underground force to control people. This cult uses the mainstream media to tell premade versions of a story in order to incite fear and control in the public. Coronavirus is an example of one of these control tactics. This is done to control the economy to destroy small business.”

The videos also contained inappropriate recommendations and discriminatory or racist comments, such as referring to SARS-CoV-2 as the “Chinese virus.”

On the positive side, almost three-quarters of the videos that the team collected contained only accurate, factual information. The most reliable were government, professional, and educational videos. However, these represented just 11% of the total number of analyzed videos, garnering only 10% of the total number of views.

“Evidently, while the power of social media lies in the sheer volume and diversity of information being generated and spread, it has significant potential for harm,” note the authors.

Although the study looked at just a single day during the pandemic, there is little doubt that, as the authors write: “The education and engagement of the public is paramount in the management of this pandemic by ensuring public understanding of and, therefore, adherence with public health measures.”

“YouTube is a powerful, untapped educational tool that should be better mobilized by health professionals.”

The authors conclude the study paper with a recommendation:

“We recommend that public health agencies collaborate with a wider range of YouTube producers (e.g., entertainment news, internet news, and influential consumers) to disseminate high quality video content. This will be an effective and immediately implementable public health strategy to effectively capture a wider audience from all demographic backgrounds, thus educating the public and minimizing the spread of misinformation.”

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