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Insights: Why is COVID-19 so confusing?

Published 11 June 2020

It’s not as simple as legitimate versus fake news. If you’re feeling confused about COVID-19, you’re not alone.

In the past, reputable sources of health information could be relied on to present reassuringly consistent advice. However, that unanimity and consistency seems to have fractured in the face of the pandemic sweeping the globe. The World Health Organization has even coined the term ‘infodemic’ to describe this oversupply of information that confuses instead of clarifying.

It seems that the fundamental reason for the current infodemic is simply that the urgency of the problem, coupled with the speed of modern communications, has led to a situation where the process of arriving at a scientific consensus is playing out in public at an accelerated pace. Much is still not understood about COVID-19, despite an astonishing torrent of research being circulated, both in peer-reviewed and pre-print form.

The process of digesting all this information and sorting out truth from fiction is normally something that takes place behind closed doors at a relatively leisurely pace. By the time that scientific results are announced to the popular press, all the noise, uncertainty and dead ends have been removed to present a crisp and tidy summary of results.

That process has been circumvented by the present emergency, with the result that many of us have been exposed to a confusing barrage of contradictory claims. The infodemic is thus not so much “fake news” as a peek at normal scientific processes, undertaken in public at breakneck speed.

Now that we understand the infodemic better, where does that leave us? That depends on your needs.

Need reliable information you can act on? Get advice from official government sources, especially:

The information on these pages has been carefully assessed by panels of experts for accuracy, safety and clarity, and collectively represents your best source for reliable guidance.

Need to combat fake news? Here's a handy myth buster blog post from CSIRO.

Want to get the big picture? Why the Coronavirus Is So Confusing is a long but very illuminating account of the many influences that contribute to the current infodemic. Understanding these influences will help you to take a more critical view of the information served up in the popular media.

Feeling overwhelmed? Uncertainty can be an enormous source of stress, especially when health and livelihoods are at stake. Some top tips for dealing with the stress of uncertainty include limiting exposure to news and avoiding dwelling on things you can’t control. Professional counselling is available from Lifeline (call 13 11 14) and other counselling services.

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