Coronavirus and Misinformation

Contagious diseases can spread quickly, like misinformation

Feb 06, 2020

SMITH BRAIN TRUST  Contagious diseases can spread quickly, and misinformation can too.

Misleading facts, and even wild conspiracies, have appeared on social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook and TikTok, fueling confusion as well as some public panic.

Ritu Agarwal, interim dean and director of the Center for Health Information and Decision Systems (CHIDS) at the University of Maryland Robert H. Smith School of Business, says it’s important to seek out information from trustworthy sources during public health crises.

“In a situation that is evolving as quickly as the one we are facing now, there is a danger here, a lot of misinformation lurking around,” Agarwal told the Baltimore Sun. “Look to the one trusted and credible source of information.”

Follow the instructions of reputable agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control, rather than “random social media posts,” Agarwal says. Authorities such as the CDC and the World Health Organization are both efficient in terms of disseminating their message and establishing the right amount of urgency, she says.

“We have really smart scientists working on this problem, and they understand how to walk a fine line that keeps the public informed and doesn’t create unnecessary panic among laypeople,” says Agarwal. “We’ll be watching to see that any new information that is relevant is pushed out and that they are verifying the veracity of the information before it’s pushed out.”

Maryland Smith professor and CHIDS co-director Guodong "Gordon" Gao encourages people to take their research one step further. He says that people should be “data-savvy” and contextualize the information they receive.

“Numbers can be scary and even deceiving alone,” Gao told the Baltimore Sun.

According to the World Health Organization, there are at least 28,000 confirmed cases in China.

With so little known about the disease – including how it is transmitted, how it might be successfully treated and what it will take to contain it – the steady rise in confirmed cases is unsettling, Gao says.

However, compare that to the flu, he says. In the United States alone, there have been tens of thousands of confirmed cases of the flu this season, and at least 10,000 deaths, according to the CDC.

The flu, Gao says, is a different story. It happens every year and there is a sense of “alarm fatigue,” but that doesn’t make it any less dangerous.



About the Expert(s)


Guodong (Gordon) Gao is a professor in the Decision, Operations and Information Technologies Department at the Robert H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland. His research interests include IT's impact on healthcare and innovation, and the transparency in service quality. 


Ritu Agarwal

Ritu Agarwal is interim dean of the Robert H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland. She is also the Robert H. Smith Dean’s Chair of Information Systems and founding director of the school’s Center for Health Information and Decision Systems (CHIDS). She has published more than 100 papers in top academic journals, testified before government agencies such as the U.S. Department of Health, and collaborated with Fortune 500 companies such as Cisco Systems, Johnson and Johnson and Pfizer. Since arriving at Maryland Smith in 1999, Agarwal has taught at every level and received all of the school’s major teaching awards. Prior to her appointment as interim dean, she served as Senior Associate Dean for Faculty & Research.

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