YouTube videos on COVID-19 are popular, but 'suboptimal' for accurate information, study finds

Unlike in the English-language videos, Mandarin videos containing misleading information were more popular

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More people are getting information about the novel coronavirus pandemic from YouTube than during previous viral outbreaks but the medical content of its videos is “suboptimal,” a new study found.

“Such formidable viewership makes YouTube a double-edged sword in times of disease outbreaks,” write the authors of a study scheduled for publication in the medical journal Travel Medicine and Infectious Disease.

Researchers assessed the quality of the medical and health information about the COVID-19 pandemic in a snapshot sample of videos uploaded to YouTube in both English and Mandarin.

Two reviewers classified each of the videos as being “useful,” “misleading” or “news” content. Researchers compared the information in the videos to available scientific literature and relevant information on the World Health Organization website.

The researchers found 67 per cent of the English language videos and 50 per cent of Mandarin videos contained useful information.

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Unlike in the English-language videos, the Mandarin videos containing misleading information were more popular.

“The misleading information in native language at epicentre of outbreak might have led to undue public distress during early phase of outbreak. YouTube thus should play a more active role in screening the content of such videos,” writes Priyanka Khatri, of the Department of Medicine, Alexandra Hospital Singapore, as lead author of the study.

Information from the World Health Organization accounted for only four per cent of useful videos.

The study of YouTube’s coronavirus content was conducted while the virus was raging in China and starting its spread, but before it had significantly hit Europe or North America. The study period was from Feb. 1 to Feb. 2.

This was a few days after the World Health Organization declared the 2019 novel coronavirus a “public health emergency of international concern” but more than a month before it was formally declared a global pandemic.

“In our current digital world, online platforms are perhaps the most accessible source of health-related information for the public. YouTube is a popular video sharing website with an estimated monthly viewership of one billion and serves as an important source of health care related information,” the study says.

During the Ebola outbreak in 2014 and the Zika virus epidemic in 2016, YouTube videos on the subjects attracted millions of views, previous research found. Not all of it was helpful or accurate.

Just the 114 coronavirus videos studied in February had already attracted more than 21 million views.

“While appropriate YouTube content may benefit the government agencies and health-care organizations in allaying public anxiety and enforcing measures to control the spread of disease, dissemination of wrong information can lead to public paranoia and failure to contain the infection,” the study says.

The findings suggest viewers should view medical content on the emerging virus found through YouTube with caution and research information more widely through recognized health organizations and trusted media sources.

Researchers called on health organizations and others to try to shift the balance of content on YouTube towards better information by uploading content on the video platform.

“Given its popularity, YouTube should be considered as important platform for information dissemination.”

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