Rumours About the Efficacy of Ibuprofen Vs Paracetamol in Treating COVID-19 Symptoms
14 April 2020
A new report by the Crime and Security Research Institute (CSRI) provides a high-resolution analysis of rumours and uncertainties about the efficacy of Ibuprofen versus Paracetamol in managing the symptoms of Covid-19.
Although there is considerable uncertainty about whether or not there are any risks with using Ibuprofen to manage Covid-19 symptoms, key public health officials, pseudo experts as well as mainstream media outlets unwittingly and widely spread misinformation on the subject. This event was significant as it induced a direct behavioural effect, causing shortages of Paracetamol across the UK, thus demonstrating how online misinformation can rapidly translate into real world consequences.
Analysis by the CSRI defines the episode as ‘complex misinformation’ on the grounds that its transmission pathway involved: multiple authors making distinct contributions in evolving the narratives; multiple mainstream and social media platforms; contributions in different languages; a range of techniques.
Based upon the empirical data assessed the new report identifies several key features of complex misinformation construction and communication:
- It is misinformation because there was no obvious intent to deceive or disinform on the part of the various multiple authors.
- A combination of uncertainty, ambiguity and urgency rendered audiences especially receptive to the doubts about Ibuprofen use.
- The researchers trace a ‘patient zero’ for concerns about Ibuprofen back to a letter published in the medical journal the Lancet on 11/03/20.
- Traces of the rumour / debate were detected across multiple platforms and channels, including: WhatsApp; Twitter; Facebook; Instagram; Reddit; mainstream media; a specialist medical journal.
- There were three key ‘super-spreader’ events that induced the misinforming process: uncertainty and invocation of the precautionary principle in public statements by de facto experts.
- The fact that audience members were encountering similar messages about Ibuprofen risks, across multiple platforms, communicated by multiple messengers, seemingly enhanced the plausibility of the concerns being raised.
- Three different sets of motives for people disseminating the information online are identified: (1) an element of inorganic behaviour and malign intent; (2) others were clearly acting with prosocial motives; (3) other constructions of the information appeared more explicitly designed to target and play off the fears of parents. The motives here are more difficult to discern.
- That there are variants in the narrative was important in attracting the attention of multiple different thought communities in terms of cohering with their established interests and values.
- Several distinctive influencing techniques can be distilled from the interventions of different authors that they used to evolve the narrative.
By identifying the principal components of a conceptual model of complex misinformation communications, the researchers hope to establish a capacity and capability to detect similar processes in the future.
A key element of learning from this analysis shows that ambiguity and uncertainty creates a conducive environment for misinformation soft facts to reproduce via social media, and it is difficult for authoritative sources to control the narrative under such conditions.