That misinformation includes not only false statements about the disease itself — such as how it spreads and what people can do to avoid becoming infected — but also conspiracy theories and racist remarks.
“This is particularly alarming, when considering the immense viewership of these videos,” write the study’s authors.
“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,” they add.
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, more than 80 percent of internet users in the United States reported that they had searched online for health-related information. YouTube is a major source of all types of online information, including medical. Globally, more than 2 billion people access YouTube each month.
In past studies, YouTube was found to present the public with misleading as well as useful information during public health crises, including the H1N1 pandemic, the Ebola outbreak and the Zika outbreak. Those studies also found that the most reputable and accurate YouTube videos about those diseases were the ones least likely to be viewed.
The authors of the current study wanted to see if something similar is happening during the COVID-19 pandemic.
For the study, a team of Canadian researchers from the University of Ottawa and Carleton University in Ottawa performed a YouTube search on March 21, 2020, using the keywords “coronavirus” and “COVID-19.” (That date was about a week after President Trump declared a national emergency and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended no public gatherings of more than 50 people.)
The researchers identified the 75 most widely viewed videos from each search. After excluding those that were duplicates, not in English and more than an hour in length, they were left with 69 videos for their analysis. The researchers then scored each video for accuracy, usefulness and quality.
They also categorized the videos into eight groups, based on who produced them: network news (video clips from broadcast TV networks), entertainment news (video clips from network TV shows that primarily offer entertainment, such as late-night talk shows) internet news (videos produced by an online site, such as Science Insider), professionals (videos produced by individuals or groups with professional credentials, such as Doc Mike), newspapers (videos produced by traditional newspapers, such as the New York Times), educational bodies (videos created by organizations, such as Osmosis and the Khan Academy, that offer online educational tutorials), government agencies (videos produced by groups such as the World Health Organization) and consumers (videos created by an individual or group of individuals with no professional credentials or established organization affiliations).
The 69 videos had accumulated more than 257 million views as of March 21. The categories that accounted for the largest share of those views were network news (29 percent), consumers (22 percent) and entertainment news (21 percent). The categories with the smallest share were educational bodies (2 percent) and government agencies (2 percent).
Fifty of the videos contained only factual information, while the other 19 (27.5 percent) contained at least one statement that was misleading or untruthful (such as “coronavirus only affects immunocompromised, cancer patients and older people”), or that reflected a conspiracy theory (“The world is controlled by a cult [that] wants to control everyone. … Coronavirus is an example of one of these control tactics”), or that was racist or discriminatory (such as calling COVID-19 “the Chinese virus”).
The non-factual videos received more than 62 million views. Six of those videos were from entertainment news, five were from network news, five were from internet news and three were from consumers.
By contrast, the professional and government videos contained only factual information. Yet they had the lowest viewership — about 10 million views as of March 21.
Limitations and implications
The study comes with several caveats. Most notably, the researchers looked only at videos popular on a particular day. Also, they searched for those videos only on YouTube, not on other internet platforms.
Still, the findings are intriguing and, of course, troubling, given the significant influence that YouTube and other social media sites have on shaping people’s beliefs and behaviors.
“We recommend that public health agencies collaborate with a wider range of YouTube producers (eg, entertainment news, internet news and influential consumers) to disseminate high-quality video content,” the study’s authors write.
“Especially considering the worsening progression of the current COVID-19 pandemic, this will likely play a significant role in increasing public adherence with public health measures and in the collective fight against the COVID-19 pandemic,” they add.
FMI: BMJ Global Health is an open-access journal, so you can read the full study online.