The ongoing coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic has placed an unprecedented strain on global society, healthcare, governments and mass media. Public dissemination of government policies, medical interventions and misinformation has been remarkably rapid and largely unregulated during the COVID-19 pandemic, resulting in increased misinterpretations, miscommunication, and public panic. Being the first full-scale global pandemic of the digital age, COVID-19 has presented novel challenges pertinent to government advice, the spread of news and misinformation, and the trade-off between the accessibility of science and the premature public use of unproven medical interventions.
This study aims to assess the use of internet search terms relating to COVID-19 information and misinformation during the global pandemic, identify which were most used in six affected countries, investigate any temporal trends and the likely propagators of key search terms, and determine any correlation between the per capita cases and deaths with the adoption of these search terms in each of the six countries.
These findings illustrate the increased rate and volume of public consumption of novel information during a global healthcare crisis. The strong positive correlation between mortality and online searching, particularly in countries with lower COVID-19 testing rates, may demonstrate the imperative to safeguard official communications and dispel misinformation in these countries. Online news, government briefings and social media provide a powerful tool for the dissemination of important information to the public during pandemics, but their misuse, and the presentation of misrepresented medical information, should be monitored, minimised and addressed to safeguard public safety. Ultimately, governments, public health authorities and scientists have a moral imperative to safeguard the truth and maintain an accessible discourse with the public to inhibit fear.
Paper: Investigating the prevalence of reactive online searching in the COVID-19 pandemic by Rafael A. Badell-Grau, Jordan P. Cuff, Brendan P. Kelly, Helen Waller-Evans and Emyr Lloyd-Evans in Journal of Medical Internet Research