As people around the world stay home to prevent the spread of COVID-19, many of us are using our phones and computers to stay connected.
For example, websites like Facebookopens a new window, Twitteropens a new window, and Redditopens a new window have all seen significant jumps in usership. However, the increase in social media participation also means an increase in misinformationopens a new window.
At San Mateo County Libraries, we want to help you discover the tools you need to tell fact from fiction.
What Is Misinformation?
Misinformationopens a new window is information that is not true or correct.
Disinformationopens a new window is incorrect information that specifically intends to be misleading.
Both can be damaging, especially when they offer fake health treatments, fuel panic, or promote bigotry. Over the long term, misinformation and disinformation can also erode our trust in one another.
Why Is There Misinformation About COVID-19?
Most of us don’t intend to share incorrect information. In times of uncertainty, we seek out answers. We often share what we find because we want to be helpful.
Still, whether it's thanks to a chain email, social media postopens a new window, phone call, or even a talk show, all of us have likely encountered false rumors and claims about COVID-19.
- We live in a time of information overload. It’s difficult to keep up with all of the news stories, blog posts, social media feeds, and even text messages.
- In the flood of messages and frequent updates, false information about COVID-19 is particularly hard to recognizeopens a new window.
- Rumors are often repeated. According to the BBC, “The more often we see something in our news feed, the more likely we are to think that it’s true—even if we were originally skeptical.”
- Social media bots and fake accountsopens a new window spread disinformation to cause confusion.
- Fact-checkers are overwhelmedopens a new window, especially when working from home means they can’t do their work securely.
- Social media platforms are trying to combat misinformation with mixed resultsopens a new window.
- Some of our questions just don’t have answers right now. That uncertainty can be scary. It makes sense that we respond to claims that seem to offer clarity or guidance.
- Verifying information takes time. It can be challenging for all of us to do the extra work of double-checking information that seems urgent.
But never fear! Even though there is a great deal of misinformation out there, you can challenge it by engaging your critical thinking skills.
10 Ways to Combat COVID-19 Misinformation
- Pause before sharing or repeating new information, especially if the information causes strong emotions. According to Professor Jeff Hancockopens a new window, the founding director of the Stanford Social Media Labopens a new window, “Compared to real news, fake news tends to include information that is more surprising, upsetting, or geared to trigger anger or anxiety." So, take 20 seconds and check in with your feelings before sharing, especially on social media. You may find that a post isn't as helpful after another look.
- Check the source. Try to get your information from accredited news outlets rather than social media posts or blogs. Check whether you are reading a news story (with objective reporting) or an opinion pieceopens a new window (also called an “Op-Ed”). Be wary of secondhand information, such as chain emails, copy-pasted text messages, or screenshots from unknown social media accounts. Ask yourself, is there any name or organization attached to this information? Is it from a trusted friend or a friend’s neighbor’s brother-in-law? Information often gets distorted as it is shared. You don’t have to play a game of digital telephone!
- Look for evidence of the claim. Does the social media post include credible studies, charts, and data? Does that data really support the claim, or is the interpretation misleading? If there is a photo attached, can you be sure the image is current and relevant?
- Remember that anecdotes aren’t data. Stories can provide useful insights and deepen empathy, but a single experience never represents the entirety of a situation. For example, one person’s symptoms of COVID-19 are not every person’s symptoms.
- Be aware of advertisements. Ask yourself if the person or organization sharing information is trying to sell you something. Advertisers aren’t neutral news sources.
- Be aware of hackersopens a new window* and scamsopens a new window. Don’t exchange information with unknown email addresses, phone numbers, or websites.
- Check the date. Information about COVID-19 is changing daily, which also makes it hard to track. Avoid sharing old stories that may have shifted or been debunked.
- Don’t share myths, even to prove them wrong. People often skim what they read online or zone out during phone calls. You don’t want someone to latch onto the falsehood and miss the correction! Remember, repetition makes even a fake statement seem true.
- Double-check with the experts. A viral social media message claimed to contain important coronavirus information from Johns Hopkins, a renowned medical institution, but the official Johns Hopkins news site has since clarified the message was falseopens a new window. When possible, verify information with the experts themselves.
- When in doubt, don’t share! If you don’t have time to research a claim, or if your research leaves you with questions, don’t spread the claim. This is a key step in combating coronavirus misinformation!
10 Resources to Check the Facts
You might want to enrich your community with verified information about COVID-19. Here are some places you can turn to double-check claims and stay informed.
- The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has created an official COVID-19 response pageopens a new window. They are also answering frequently asked questionsopens a new window.
- The World Health Organization (WHO) has also created an official COVID-19 response pageopens a new window, including responses to common coronavirus mythsopens a new window.
- Medline Plus is an e-resource for information from the National Institutes of Health and the National Library of Medicine. You can also search Medline Plus in Spanishopens a new window.
- The California State Government’s newsroomopens a new window frequently releases updated COVID-19 information. Additionally, Governor Gavin Newsom is posting live and recorded video briefingsopens a new window.
- San Mateo Countyopens a new window is also working hard to keep us informed.
- Your healthcare provider might also be releasing verified COVID-19 information. For example, here is a page from Covered Californiaopens a new window.
- The News Literacy Projectopens a new window is dedicated to combating fake news. Check them out for rumor reviews and short quizzes to test your own news literacy.
- AFP’s Coronavirus Verification Hubopens a new window has collected and debunked a variety of false COVID claims.
- Snopesopens a new window is a great website for double-checking stories and rumors.
- SMCL has free eResources to connect you to other news sources you can trust.
Where are you finding trusted coronavirus news? Let us know in the comments! We can work together to stay safe and informed.
*While Buzzfeed is better known for funny lists, Buzzfeed News does some great in-depth reporting. In fact, its staff was nominated for a Pulitzer prizeopens a new window in 2018! But if you were skeptical of this link, great job! That’s exactly the kind of critical thinking that can help combat misinformation.