Falsehood Flies; Truth Comes Limping After: Misinformation in the Social Media Age

Our responsibility is to recognize and protect ourselves and others from the dangers of misinformation.

Marie Ennis
6 min readMar 8, 2023

The satirist, Johnathan Swift, once lamented that falsehood flies, and truth comes limping after it. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, we glimpsed the rise of an “infodemic”, the dissemination of disinformation across social media. The World Health Organization (WHO) has defined an infodemic as an overabundance of information, some accurate and some not, that makes it difficult for people to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance when they need it. This can lead to confusion and mistrust of health officials, as well as risk-taking behaviors that can have negative consequences for public health.

The infodemic has been fuelled by social media and other digital platforms, which have made it easy for false or misleading information to spread rapidly. This has included conspiracy theories, fake cures, and other types of misinformation that can undermine public health efforts to control the spread of the virus. The spread of disinformation and conspiracy theories related to COVID-19 has also been linked to vaccine hesitancy and a reluctance to follow public health guidelines.

While the conspiracy theories surrounding COVID-19 are novel, infodemics are not a new phenomenon and have been around for a long time. Even the term “fake news”, which has achieved considerable contemporary prominence, was first coined in 1925, when an article in Harper’s Magazine, entitled “Fake News and the Public” mourned how newswires were allowing misinformation to disseminate rapidly.

However, the growth of the internet has enabled misinformation to spread rapidly, causing concern about potential “digital wildfires” of intentionally or unintentionally misleading information. With ideas no longer limited by geography, what was once spread locally can quickly become global.

Defining terminology: what’s in a name?

Misinformation involves information that is inadvertently false and is shared without intent to cause harm, while disinformation involves false information knowingly being created and shared to cause harm.

In practice, however, it often seems difficult to differentiate between these categories due to issues with intent. It can be challenging to determine the intent behind the spread of misinformation, as it may be motivated by a range of factors, including ideology, politics, financial gain, or a sincere belief in the false information being shared. In the case of anti-vaccine propaganda, for instance, some individuals may be spreading misinformation out of a genuine concern about vaccine safety, while others may be intentionally spreading false information to advance a particular agenda or undermine public trust in government or scientific institutions. Misinformation narratives often induce fear, anxiety, and mistrust in institutions, which can make people more susceptible to false information. Correcting false information is difficult once it gains acceptance, and the effectiveness of interventions varies based on personal involvement, literacy, and socio-demographic characteristics.

Why People Share Fake News. People believe accuracy matters, but… | by Erman Misirlisoy, PhD | GEN (medium.com)

The triumph of emotive fictions over reality

As human beings, we are often driven by our emotions and instincts, and we may react impulsively to information that resonates with us emotionally. This can make it easier for false or misleading information to take hold and become established, particularly in the fast-paced, emotionally charged environment of social media.

Social media is unique in its capacity to amplify and distort information, and it can be difficult for individuals to separate fact from fiction in the midst of the constant flow of information. The algorithms used by social media platforms can also contribute to the spread of misinformation by promoting content that is likely to engage users, regardless of its accuracy.

As humans, we emote first and reflect after, and this propensity to react before reflecting is a trojan horse for devious fictions to become established. The prevalence of fake cancer cures and other forms of health misinformation on social media highlights a larger issue of the triumph of emotive fictions over reality.

This is a concern not just for health information, but for all kinds of information that can impact our beliefs, attitudes, and behaviours. Misinformation and conspiracy theories are not harmless. They can have real-world consequences, such as discouraging people from seeking medical treatment or vaccinations, or even inciting violence.

As observed by Wang et al, 2017, there is limited understanding of why certain individuals, societies and institutions are more vulnerable to misinformation about health. This is perhaps surprising, as health promotion and public health researchers now pay considerable attention to the potential of the internet as a tool to diffuse health-related information

The infodemic of false and misleading information in the age of social media is a pervasive problem that can have harmful consequences for individuals and society as a whole. Falsehoods and conspiracy theories can take hold and spread quickly, while accurate information may struggle to gain traction.

Interventions to correct misinformation should target both individual psychological responses and social contexts. Wang et al caution against retraction efforts that can backfire, and suggest that improving critical thinking and media literacy would be a constructive approach. Researchers, policymakers, social scientists, psychologists, computer scientists, medical professionals, industries, and consumers must collaborate at the system level in order to reduce selective exposure and opinion polarization.

Further Reading

COVID-19 Misinformation And Social Media: A Deadly Infodemic

A New Application of Social Impact in Social Media for Overcoming Fake News in Health

From “Infodemics” to Health Promotion: A Novel Framework for the Role of Social Media in Public Health | AJPH | Vol. 110 Issue 9

Critical Impact of Social Networks Infodemic on Defeating Coronavirus COVID-19 Pandemic: Twitter-Based Study and Research Directions | IEEE Journals & Magazine

Building trust while influencing online COVID-19 content in the social media world — The Lancet Digital Health

JMIR Infodemiology — Public Figure Vaccination Rhetoric and Vaccine Hesitancy: Retrospective Twitter Analysis

Adult readers evaluating the credibility of social media posts: Prior belief consistency and source’s expertise matter most (arxiv.org)

5 ways to help stop the ‘infodemic,’ the increasing misinformation about coronavirus (medicalxpress.com)

Journal of Medical Internet Research — COVID-19 Vaccine Fact-Checking Posts on Facebook: Observational Study (jmir.org)

Journal of Medical Internet Research — A Deadly Infodemic: Social Media and the Power of COVID-19 Misinformation (jmir.org)

Social media effectiveness as a humanitarian response to mitigate influenza epidemic and COVID-19 pandemic | SpringerLink

JMIR Infodemiology — Online Search Behavior Related to COVID-19 Vaccines: Infodemiology Study

Journal of Medical Internet Research — Health Information Seeking Behaviors on Social Media During the COVID-19 Pandemic Among American Social Networking Site Users: Survey Study (jmir.org)

Journal of Medical Internet Research — COVID-19 Vaccine Tweets After Vaccine Rollout: Sentiment–Based Topic Modeling (jmir.org)

Journal of Medical Internet Research — Top Concerns of Tweeters During the COVID-19 Pandemic: Infoveillance Study (jmir.org)

The use of social media and online communications in times of pandemic COVID-19 (sagepub.com)

Leveraging media and health communication strategies to overcome the COVID-19 infodemic | SpringerLink

Journal of Medical Internet Research — Social Media, Public Health, and Community Mitigation of COVID-19: Challenges, Risks, and Benefits (jmir.org)

The Twitter pandemic: The critical role of Twitter in the dissemination of medical information and misinformation during the COVID-19 pandemic | Canadian Journal of Emergency Medicine | Cambridge Core

Social-Media-Spread-During-Covid-19-The-Pros-and-Cons-of-Likes-and-Shares-IMJ-2020.pdf (irishpsychiatry.ie)

WHO launches a chatbot on Facebook Messenger to combat COVID-19 misinformation

Social media for rapid knowledge dissemination: early experience from the COVID‐19 pandemic — PMC (nih.gov)

Journal of Medical Internet Research — Use of Twitter Amplifiers by Medical Professionals to Combat Misinformation During the COVID-19 Pandemic (jmir.org)

Journal of Medical Internet Research — The Mutual Influence of the World Health Organization (WHO) and Twitter Users During COVID-19: Network Agenda-Setting Analysis (jmir.org)

What social media told us in the time of COVID-19: a scoping review — ScienceDirect

The importance of trust in the relation between COVID-19 information from social media and well-being among adolescents and young adults | PLOS ONE



Marie Ennis

Healthcare Communications Strategist | Keynote Speaker | HIMSS FUTURE50 Awardee