Which voices led medical misinformation in early stages of COVID?

University of Cincinnati

In the early and thus far most devastating stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, scientists were at a near loss on how to treat the deadly disease. The public was desperate for information. Consequently, two antimalarial drugs ― chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine ― were the subject of a Twitter storm in the marketplace of ideas known as social media. The medication was lauded as a potential cure: There was run on the medication, creating a shortage for those who used it for other medical indications, such as lupus. One person died and another was hospitalized after taking chloroquine as a prophylactic.

Although the drug therapy turned out not to be the magic bullet, researchers from the University of Cincinnati wanted to know what influences caused so many people to believe this therapy was indeed the answer, despite warnings from leaders in the scientific community that the efficacy of the drug was unfounded. Their findings appear in the journal Social Media + Society.

Supported by the UC Office of Research’s Digital Futures Initiative and with funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, a multidisciplinary team analyzed over 100 million Twitter posts related to COVID-19. By focusing on tweets, likes and retweets citing the drugs by name, the team learned that science and politics were directly competing against each other; and the loudest voice in the social media platform, then President Donald Trump, contributed greatly to the falsehood, even though he was not the originator of the claims.

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