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A Different Threat: The Infodemic of COVID-19

Woman on computer and phone
Photo by Maxim Ilyahov on Unsplash

As the global COVID-19 pandemic continues, people across the world are preoccupied with concerns about this dangerous illness. But while the virus itself wreaks havoc on our daily life, another threat is going viral and doing its own damage. False information, swiftly and widely shared, has created aninfodemicthat further confuses an already uncertain time.  It is now more  important than ever that we know the trusted sources for scientific information as we move forward.

False information related to the pandemic takes many forms: bad advice on self-diagnosis, quack cures, unproven preventive measures, even conspiracy theories on the origin of the virus that causes COVID-19. Although false information associated with disease outbreaks is not new, in the age of social media, it is shared at breakneck speed with remarkable reach.

In March, the Pew Research Center surveyed a sample of American adults who get their news from various sources, to find who reported seeing “news and information about the COVID-19 outbreak that seemed completely made up.”

Of respondents who commonly get their news from print media, 37 percent indicated seeing “some” or “a lot” of news they believed was made up. Of people who preferred TV, radio or website news, 42 to 49 percent reported the same. Topping the chart were people who typically used social media to get their news, of whom 57 percent reported seeing “made up” news about COVID-19.

These differences are striking. But since the survey relies only on people’s perceptions of validity, it’s less clear how accurate those assessments were—how many of the “made up” items were actually false, and how many were hastily dismissed facts.

The Harm it Causes

Misleading information is always a problem, but its potential for harm is much greater in the context of a deadly pandemic. It may promote risky behaviors, prompt dangerous actions, cause panic or create stigma.

Based on false information, someone may reject recommendations that are meant to mitigate disease spread, thus putting themselves and others at risk. Information that promotes the use of untested or unproven treatments may cause bodily harm or death if individuals act on it.

On the other hand, needlessly alarmist messages may incite people to engage in detrimental behaviors, such as panic buying or equipment hoarding.

Finally, false and misleading information about COVID-19 patients, their families, or particular ethnic or national groups can fuel unjustified bias, racism, and discrimination.

This video by Nature explores the work of researchers around the world who are attempting to understand the viral power of fake news by collecting data and building models to suggest methods for countering its spread.

Panic Buying
Photo by John Cameron from Unsplash

 What’s Being Done

In early February, the World Health Organization (WHO) identified the need “to track and respond to myths and rumors” about the coronavirus outbreak. In mid-March, a group of social media platforms and tech companies issued a joint statement declaring that they were “jointly combating fraud and misinformation about the virus, elevating authoritative content on our platforms, and sharing critical updates in coordination with government healthcare agencies around the world.”

Both Facebook and Twitter posted statements describing practices to address coronavirus and COVID-19 misinformation. These include using educational pop-ups to direct users to trusted sources, facilitating the use of fact-checking organizations to encourage users to submit suspect information, and expanding machine learning techniques to vet and flag content for further review by human reviewers. Strategies to identify false information continue to be refined and implemented by both platforms.  Twitter, for example, now labels "potentially harmful" coronavirus Tweets, and guides users to trusted sources on the topic.

What You Can Do

Whether the falsehoods you encounter are misinformation (incorrect information shared carelessly, without the intent to deceive) or disinformation (false information created specifically to mislead for a desired effect) there are measures you can take to identify them and stop their spread.

Your first sign that a social media post, article or message might not be entirely true is if it immediately inspires intense shock, anger or fear. It’s human nature to want to share these emotions when we feel them, so the people who create these items will often use provocative headlines and images to inspire you to click and share without investigating.

Fake News
Photo by United Nations from Unsplash

Recent publications describe various ways to detect "fake news" and "disinformation" in social media feeds.  So before you hit that “share” button, here are some ways to verify the material you have found:

  • Search the internet to see if you can find another source of this information. Look for articles published by credible news outlets, rather than overtly biased sources.
  • Use a fact-checking site like FactCheck.org to determine if the material in the post or message has been examined or debunked—someone may have already done the work for you to get to the bottom of things.
  • Examine the profile of the user who originated the material. Evaluate the nature of the user’s previous posts. Were they overly provocative, alarmist or inflammatory? Is this even a real person, or can you find evidence that it’s a bot?
  • If the post cites or uses the logo or trademark of a well-known organization, go to their website and see if you can confirm the message. If it’s a major announcement, you should expect to see it published by the organization itself—if not on the homepage, then perhaps in a section dedicated to news or press releases.
  • Use photographic images in the post or message to help you establish authenticity. Do a reverse image search using an online tool like Google Image Search. Evaluate the sites where the images have previously been posted. Compare similar photos for evidence of image editing. If an image has been doctored, that strongly suggests the post involves disinformation.

 

Facebook’s Digital Engagement resource for educators includes a module on verifying social media content, including a five-point checklist to verify posts. It’s geared toward high schoolers but contains handy information that any of us can use. NPR’s Life Kit podcast also has an easy guide to spotting fake news.

If your efforts determine that a post is spreading falsehoods, deliberately or otherwise, you should report it to the host social media platform using their prescribed reporting system.

Where to Go for Good Info

When you are weary of investigating all the news that comes your way, remember you can always go straight to the sources for factual and updated information. The White House Coronavirus Task Force, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) are great places to start. If you want news that’s specific to the Commonwealth, the Virginia Department of Health and the Virginia Department of Social Services have useful, timely and true information for you.  And be sure to keep up todate with VPM's Coronavirus news coverage at vpm.org/resources.

This is an unprecedented situation for all of us, and it can be difficult to process a daily cascade of new and conflicting information. But a little effort to separate fact from fiction—and discourage the spread of the latter—can go a long way to keep you and your loved ones armed with solid information.