How the rise of Religious Misinformation is contributing to the Covid-19 infodemic

By Masha Alimardani, Doctoral Candidate, Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford  and Mona Elswah, Doctoral Candidate, Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford

Oxford doctoral candidates Mahsa Alimardani and Mona Elswah present the case for how the new phenomenon of ‘religious misinformation’ is adding to the Covid-19 infodemic in many countries across the world.

In their new paper, ‘Online Temptations: Covid 19 and Religious Misinformation’, published in leading journal Social Media + Society, Alimardani and Elswah argue that this phenomenon is particularly prevalent in the MENA region.

While the authors emphasize that Islam prohibits the spread of rumours and encourages believers to verify information, this did not stop the spread of religious misinformation in the region. They argue that the lack of trust in public authority has contributed to the spread of this phenomenon.

Alimardani and Elswah set out two clear examples of religious misinformation related to coronavirus in the MENA region in their latest paper, highlighting how religious misinformation has helped exacerbate the Covid-19 infodemic globally.

Firstly the authors explain how fake religious remedies suggested by unofficial and official religious figures in Iran have contributed to the infodemic. They also highlight the rise of religious clickbait in the form of false hadiths and viral religious advice from religious figures entrenched in MENA’s political elite, with videos spreading in the Arab world on YouTube, warning people that the world is ending.

Mahsa Alimardani said: “What is concerning me the most is how fast religious misinformation spreads on social media. The articles are harder to debunk and usually considered a sensitive topic to discuss because people will accuse you of being anti-Islam.”

Mona Elswah has shown another concern in relation to how platforms moderation won’t detect this particular type of misinformation. She adds, “Arabic and Persian content moderation have always let this region down while handling political content. It is even harder for the algorithms and human moderators to detect and handle religious content.”

Read more about the phenomenon of ‘religious misinformation’ in their new paper ‘Online Temptations: Covid 19 and Religious Misinformation’ published in academic journal Social Media and Society.