A massive “infodemic” developed in parallel with the global COVID-19 pandemic and contributed to public misinformation at a time when access to quality information was crucial. This research aimed to analyze the science and health-related hoaxes that were spread during the pandemic with the objectives of (1) identifying the characteristics of the form and content of such false information, and the platforms used to spread them, and (2) formulating a typology that can be used to classify the different types of hoaxes according to their connection with scientific information. The study was conducted by analyzing the content of hoaxes which were debunked by the three main fact-checking organizations in Spain in the three months following WHO’s announcement of the pandemic (N = 533). The results indicated that science and health content played a prominent role in shaping the spread of these hoaxes during the pandemic. The most common hoaxes on science and health involved information on scientific research or health management, used text, were based on deception, used real sources, were international in scope, and were spread through social networks. Based on the analysis, we proposed a system for classifying science and health-related hoaxes, and identified four types according to their connection to scientific knowledge: “hasty” science, decontextualized science, badly interpreted science, and falsehood without a scientific basis. The rampant propagation and widespread availability of disinformation point to the need to foster media and scientific caution and literacy among the public and increase awareness of the importance of timing and substantiation of scientific research. The results can be useful in improving media literacy to face disinformation, and the typology we formulate can help develop future systems for automated detection of health and science-related hoaxes.
A great amount of misinformation and hoaxes on matters related to the pandemic emerged in parallel with the COVID-19 pandemic, and spread primarily through social networks. This phenomenon reached such levels that the World Health Organization (WHO) described it as a “massive infodemic,” and warned the world of its dangers as it prevents the public from accessing the much-needed reliable information about the disease . It is well known that many of the hoaxes were focused on scientific and health-related topics [2,3]. However, the relationship between scientific information and the characteristics of these hoaxes has not been elucidated.
For the first time in contemporary history, a pandemic of this magnitude was experienced, and all media outlets across the globe disseminated a huge amount of “express science” that gave rise to a problematic relationship between science and society. A lot of information was based on preprints of scientific publications that had not yet undergone a peer-review process, and this contributed to public misinformation.
Spain was hit hard by the pandemic and suffered a high percentage of infections and deaths . On March 14, 2020, the government announced a state of alarm, which involved a nation-wide lockdown that lasted until June 21. Spain was restrained by a national lockdown, which created a crisis, and citizens were eager to understand the pandemic better and turned to social media to receive immediate information. Spain was thus a perfect case for our study.
The phenomenon of information disorder
History is littered with examples of fabrication and dissemination of falsehoods by people, organizations, and governments [5,6]. Recently, public dissemination of falsehoods has reached unprecedented proportions. Digital networks have transformed traditional public communication processes, and one of their consequences is that incorrect information can now be spread worldwide quickly, and on a massive scale.
Disinformation refers to deliberate deception, whereas misinformation refers to the unintended proliferation of falsehoods. These two categories effectively differentiate between acts of malice (voluntary) and mistakes (involuntary). These two broad categories include multiple modalities and specific terms. Research has explored certain modalities such as conspiracy theories , rumors , and hoaxes .
In journalism, “fake” [10,11] or “false”  news phenomenon has been widely investigated. Interest in disinformation within the media has intensified over the last decade, especially since 2016, as a result of the US presidential election  and the Brexit referendum . The incidence of false information during these events helped popularize the controversial and ambiguous concept of “fake news” [11,15]. According to Tandoc Jr. et al. , “fake news” is a multiform reality that encompasses diverse expressions, such as news satire, news parody, fabrication, manipulation, advertising, and propaganda.
Among the different forms and modes of disinformation, hoaxes play a prominent role. These have been defined as “all intentionally false content that appears to be true, conceived with the purpose of deceiving the public and publicly spread via any social platform or social network” . In our study, we opted to use the hoax concept because the falsehoods investigated not only correspond to content disseminated in news media, but according to the extant literature, it is a concept that designates deliberate falsehoods and targets the general public through any communication channel.
Identified as key challenges of our time , misinformation and disinformation have been the subject of many research articles with a wide range of approaches and methodologies . The deliberately misleading nature of false information makes it difficult to study and analyze, and most studies conducted thus far have focused on three aspects: (1) identification of the forms of false content, (2) the dynamics of dissemination, especially on social networks, and (3) the impact on public opinion.
León B, Martínez-Costa MP, Salaverría R, López-Goñi I (2022) Health and science-related disinformation on COVID-19: A content analysis of hoaxes identified by fact-checkers in Spain. PLOS ONE 17(4): e0265995. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0265995
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