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Why COVID-19 Misinformation Works

The rampant spread of false information about the coronavirus has been attributed to politicians who have promoted remedies ranging from anti-malarial drugs to herbal drinks. But how humans process knowledge has an important role to play in understanding why so many have bought into these “cures.”

LONDON – At the United Nations General Assembly meeting in September, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro used his allotted time at the podium to recount his views on COVID-19. He extolled the virtues of treatments that have been rejected by scientists and proclaimed that he had benefited from the anti-malarial drug hydroxychloroquine.

Bolsonaro’s support for such “miracle cures” is well known. He has appeared regularly in the Brazilian press and on social networks promoting the use of off-label treatments that have no basis in scientific fact. And he is not alone. During his administration, former US President Donald Trump advocated for a variety of unproven remedies, and the president of Madagascar, Andry Rajoelina, has sponsored a drink derived from the herb artemisia to treat COVID-19. To the despair of the scientific community, these politicians and others have successfully convinced a large swath of the public of such treatments’ efficacy and safety.

Misinformation has run rampant during the pandemic, but it is not a new phenomenon. In their seminal work on the perception of welfare in the United States, the political scientist James Kuklinski and his colleagues showed that significant portions of the American population held inaccurate beliefs about the recipients of state support and the benefits they received. They also found that the prevalence of misinformation prevented accurate information from gaining traction. Misinformed people do not simply have inaccurate information; they are heavily invested in their misconceptions. And this is what makes misinformation so powerful: it combines misperceptions about the world with a high degree of confidence in their accuracy.

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