Posted on April 27, 2020

From disseminating important information to assisting in potentially life-saving research and development, various forms of technology have a leading role in Qatar’s and the wider world’s response to COVID-19. In this Q&A, experts from Qatar Computing Research Institute (QCRI) at Hamad Bin Khalifa University (HBKU) outline how social media platforms are tackling the spread of false information, AI’s contribution to research activities, and more.

Social media is an obvious ‘home’ for false information and conspiracy theories. Have you noticed anything different about the spread of spurious information regarding COVID-19?

False information concerning COVID-19 includes conspiracy theories, fake cures and questionable political motivations.  Popular conspiracies include suggestions that symptoms are caused by sarin gas and that 5G towers are behind the genetic mutation of the virus. Other theories claim that COVID-19 is a hoax designed to subdue and track people, or the work of a secret cabal bent on eliminating populations to save the environment. The effects of such rumors include the creation of a sense of helplessness and complacency among communities. 

Social media is currently awash with outlandish cures and remedies for COVID-19. It’s been claimed, for example, that alcohol, tobacco and even cow’s urine are useful for treating symptoms. The politicization of COVID-19 is equally – if not more – controversial. For instance, supporters of Donald Trump initially pushed the narrative that liberals were exaggerating the effects of the virus to undermine support for the US President. Similarly, followers of Narendra Modi have attributed the spread of COVID-19 around India to the Muslim missionary group Tableeghi Jaamat after some of its members tested positive following a religious gathering.

How effective have global efforts been to use social media to dispel myths and provide credible sources of information regarding COVID-19?

Social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube have consistently pointed users to the World Health Organization (WHO) website for reliable information concerning COVID-19. Our research also highlights that many social media users have been actively dispelling rumors and discrediting sources.  This is a positive sign. 

We’ve also observed that open social media platforms have been more successful in reducing fake news and rumors than their messaging counterparts, such as WhatsApp. Similarly, many of these platforms have created dedicated aggregators that distill information from articles, news and organizational posts while providing access to reliable information in a consolidated manner. Nonetheless, some rumors have made their way around social media at an alarming rate.  You know you are in trouble when you receive the same video mentioning a specific rumor or conspiracy theory multiple times on WhatsApp.

COVID-19 is creating large amounts of data on a daily basis, some of which might be useful for the development of novel treatments. How is technology working with big data to find and discern important information?

Put simply, in many different ways. For example, data from Asian countries that bore the early brunt of COVID-19 is now being used for epidemic modeling elsewhere. This data is also helping to drive policies covering social distancing and lockdown, as well as the triage and testing of patients. Similarly, epidemiological characteristics such as relative risk in different groups, intervention and treatment protocols are being designed and rapidly updated. Much of this would not have been possible without having access to large amounts of data that can be used to tune hypothesis and model parameters.

Similarly, under the compassionate use criteria many experimental drugs - or drugs approved for other diseases - are being tested on patients. This is resulting in a large number of trials, vast amounts of literature and the generation of new clinical data. AI and other data mining technologies are being utilized to generate insights from this data to answer high priority scientific questions. For example, the COVID-19 Open Research Dataset (CORD19) released by various organizations is now part of a strategic call to the scientific community from the White House for contributions. This includes the discovery of novel treatments or the off-label use of approved medicines.

How is Artificial Intelligence (AI) currently being used to detect, treat and prevent COVID-19? Are there any ‘on the drawing board’ technologies that might prove useful?

Artificial Intelligence is being applied to various aspects of the pandemic. For instance, China has deployed an AI radiology tool that uses CT images to diagnose COVID-19. This helped the country to overcome a shortage of test kits, which otherwise remains the standard practice within the scientific community. Variants of AI technology were also used to identify and track possible outbreaks and disease clusters, as well as patients entering quarantine and self-isolation.

Researchers are also using AI to identify novel and existing drug candidates based on molecular structure and protein interactions. While this does not obviate the need for lab testing, it significantly speeds up candidate generation. Elsewhere, research is ongoing into a data-driven approach to predict various end points like severity, length of recovery and mortality. If successful, this approach will prove extremely useful in situations where proper resource utilization is critical.

Dr. Kareem Darwish is a principal scientist at QCRI’s Arabic Language Technologies. Dr. Faisal Farooq is Head of Digital Health research at QCRI.

This article is submitted on behalf of the authors by the HBKU Communications Directorate. The views expressed are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect the University’s official stance.