Covid-19 on YouTube: a pandemic of misinformation


 This is the grim finding made by Canadian researchers after a study, conducted in March 2020, which consisted of analyzing the content of the 150 most viewed videos in English on the disease caused by the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2. Posted on April 20 in The Lancet prepublication space, this is the first study to assess the relevance and quality of the most viewed YouTube videos during the Covid-19 pandemic.

As we know, more than 70% of adults surf the Internet to seek information on health and medicine. As such, YouTube, a video hosting and social media website, is a major source of information, used by more than two billion Internet users around the world.

Studies have shown that the popular web video platform has disseminated misinformation during previous health crises, such as the H1N1 influenza pandemic, the Ebola virus outbreak and the Zika virus outbreak. This work revealed that about a quarter of YouTube videos devoted to these conditions, most posted by ordinary users, conveyed false information.

Given the importance of disseminating relevant, useful and reliable medical information, three researchers from the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Ottawa and the Department of Medical Sciences at Carleton University (Ottawa) conducted at the end of March 2020, a study assessing the veracity, usefulness and quality of most YouTube videos regarding the Covid-19 pandemic.

These researchers independently viewed 150 videos in the English language. The relevance and quality of each video has been assessed using modified versions of two tools for identifying with high specificity quality websites, one British (modified DISCERN), the other based on established criteria. by the American Medical Association (modifiedJAMA). In addition, in order to judge the usefulness of the videos for an average user, the researchers created a specific score out of a total of 5 points (Covid-19 Specific Score or CSS). A point was thus awarded depending on whether the video contained information on the transmission of the coronavirus, on the symptoms, prevention strategies, potential treatments, and the epidemiology of the Covid-19 disease.

Of the 150 videos viewed, 69 were selected for analysis. The sequences were excluded because they were duplicates, videos in languages ​​other than English, lasting more than an hour or lacking a soundtrack.

69 videos with over 268 million views

In total, these 69 videos totaled nearly 268 million views. They were classified into eight categories: videos posted by one or more individuals not belonging to a professional organization (22%), by people working within a professional structure (7%), extracts from programs entertainment TV (21%), footage broadcast by news channels (29%), videos broadcast on news websites (12%), government sources (2%), newspaper websites (5%), educational sites intended for students or the general public (2%).

Finally, about 75% of the 69 videos included in the study contained factual information only. Nineteen of them (about a quarter) contained non-factual information and had more than 62 million views.

Under-representation of government and professional sources

Videos from government and professional sources contained only factual information. As you might expect, these got better CSS scores than those posted by lamba individuals. Likewise, their mDISCERN and mJAMA quality scores were better than videos from internet users and entertainment shows. Their DISCERN scores were higher than those of online news sites. In addition, the level of usefulness of government and professional videos was significantly higher than videos posted by ordinary Internet users, news sites or corresponding to footage of entertainment programs.

Regarding videos containing non-factual information, these can relay untruths and "fakenews" such as: "the coronavirus only affects people who are immunocompromised, suffering from cancer and the elderly", "a more virulent strain is circulating in Italy and Iran ”,“ the pharmaceutical companies have a cure but do not sell it, so everyone dies ”.

Other videos convey recommendations for the general public ("experts recommend stocking several months of baby food and bottles in the event of a shortage"), racist or discriminatory statements ("Chinese virus"), or conspiracy theories ("The world is controlled by a sect that wants to control the world. It represents 1% of the population and uses an underground force to control people. This sect uses mainstream media to tell pre-made versions of a story to instigate fear and thereby control people. The coronavirus is an example of one of those control tactics. It is about controlling the economy to destroy small businesses ").

An "alarming" finding

The study shows that non-factual videos convey conspiratorial theses, fabricated facts, inappropriate recommendations and discriminatory statements.  Clearly, while the power of social media lies in the volume and diversity of information produced and disseminated, it can have a significant detrimental impact, ”the authors write.

Heidi Oi-Yee Li and her colleagues believe that in addition to fueling fear and racism, this proliferation of misinformation can lead to inappropriate and dangerous behavior, such as rushing toilet paper or stealing masks. 

As professionals and governments provide the highest quality content, the researchers believe these groups should develop strategies to increase the audience and impact of their videos by partnering with YouTube channel producers. popular or information professionals *.

It now remains to conduct a comparable study on videos broadcast in French and devoted to the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus and Covid-19 disease, both on YouTube and on Dailymotion. But also to take an interest in the content disseminated on other social networks, such as Twitter, Instagram or Facebook, in order to better understand the impact of distorted, incomplete, erroneous or falsified information.



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