A study has revealed more than a quarter of the most widely viewed COVID-19 English-language videos on YouTube 'containing false or misleading information.'

Experts, whose research was published in BMJ Global Health, cautioned that fake COVID-19 news reaches far more people than in any previous pandemic - with the potential to cause serious harm.

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YouTube is a "help and obstacle" in the data checking

DailyMail said high quality and reliable information is commonly available on YouTube, given by government agencies and experts. 

However, the data is sometimes hard to grasp and lacks general appeal - meaning it doesn't reach those kinds of needs, the researchers said.

Past work has shown that YouTube was both a help and an obstacle in earlier public health crises - for example, during the swine flu pandemic and the outbreaks of Ebola and Zika. 

But, after those studies were written, the rapid proliferation of social media has changed the equation, the researchers cautioned.

The researchers examined the most commonly viewed COVID-19 videos as of March 21 to try to provide a more current evaluation of the accuracy of the consistency of coronavirus knowledge on YouTube.

After narrowing the range down to 69 videos, the researchers used a specially developed scoring system to determine the reliability and consistency of each.

This so-called COVID-19 specific score was awarded for exclusively factual information on the viral spread, typical symptoms, prevention, possible treatments, and epidemiology.

Professional and government agency videos scored higher than any other measure for accuracy, usability, and quality. On the other hand, they did not feature prominently among top viewing figures.

Network news accounted for the highest proportion of views by 29% - led by 22% of users, 21% of entertainment news, and 12% of Internet news. 

Newspapers accounted for only five percent of the views reported. In comparison, government agencies and educational institutions registered only two percent each.

More than 70% of the videos contained only factual information. Still, more than one out of four-27.5% - had misleading or inaccurate information, representing more than 62 million views, or around a quarter of the total. 

The fake news identified by the team included claims that pharmaceutical companies have a cure but refuse to sell it, conspiracy theories, and discriminatory remarks.

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Alarming results

Study lead author and medical student Heidi Oi-Yee Li of the University of Ottawa in Canada noted the particularly alarming results when considering the immense viewership of these videos.

"Evidently, while the power of social media lies in the sheer volume and diversity of information being generated and spread, it has significant potential for harm," she told DailyMail.

According to Li, the education and engagement of the public are paramount in the management of this pandemic by ensuring public understanding and adherence to public health measures.

The researchers suggest working with news companies or social media influencers to 'jazz up' their digital content to attract and engage a much wider audience.

"YouTube is a powerful, untapped educational tool that should be better mobilized by health professionals,' Miss Li said."

Many existing marketing strategies are static in the form of published guidelines, statistical reports, and infographics, Li pointed out. These may not be as appealing or accessible to the general public, she added.

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