Coronavirus outbreak means (mis)information overload: How to cope
The coronavirus pandemic is leading to information overload for many people, often making it difficult to separate fact from fiction and rumor from deliberate efforts to mislead.
Already, text messages predicting a nationwide lockdown have circulated, along with social media posts telling people that one way to get tested for the virus is by donating blood or warning that mosquitoes can carry it. All are untrue. Such falsehoods can endanger public health, sow confusion and fear, and prevent important information from reaching people during a crisis. The Associated Press has debunked many such claims, including one about bananas supposedly preventing people from catching the virus and another on “Harry Potter” actor Daniel Radcliffe testing positive.
COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus, has stricken thousands across the globe but usually presents only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For older adults and people with other health problems, it can cause complications or sometimes death. Most people recover.
Here are some things you can do to separate fact from misinformation:
We are more likely to believe things our friends tell us — that's human nature. It's why rumors spread and why misinformation travels on social media. It's also why the chain text message warning of a nationwide lockdown worked so well: Everyone heard it from a friend of a friend who “knows someone.” Be wary of important-sounding information that is not coming from a clear, authoritative source, such as local government agencies and health departments, or national and international public health institutes such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization. Posts may also claim that a politician said or did something. You can check that information through legitimate news outlets or the candidates' own verified social media accounts.
The top public health institutes in the United States and other countries, along with the WHO, are some of the most trusted sources of information about the outbreak. They provide the latest statistics, advisories and guides on everything from sanitizing your home to managing stress.
Dr. Jessica Justman, an infectious disease expert at Columbia University, said the sheer amount of information online about the coronavirus pandemic can quickly become overwhelming. That’s one reason she encourages people to check the websites of the CDC and the WHO.
“It’s not just misinformation, it’s also a lack of good information,” Justman said. “There’s so much information out there that many people are just saying ‘I can’t read it, it makes me too anxious.’”
“Go straight to the source,” she said. “The CDC has been putting out great information.”
At the same time, be mindful of scammers taking advantage of the CDC's and other organizations' trusted names.
“Everyone right now is trying to figure out: What is going on? What do I need to know? Who can I trust?” said John Silva, director of education at the News Literacy Project, a Washington D.C.-based nonprofit that works with educators to teach students how to navigate the news.
Silva said anyone searching for accurate information about the virus needs to act a little like a journalist by verifying suspicious claims.
Be wary of information from groups or news organizations you don’t know — in some cases the groups behind misinformation create websites and social media accounts that look like a legitimate news organization. Remember that there’s a difference between news stories and opinion pieces. News stories should include the source of the information. If there’s no source or attribution, be suspicious.
In addition to seeking authoritative sources, journalists also seek to confirm information from multiple sources. Even if a news outlet is at first alone in reporting a big development, others will soon follow. If this doesn't happen, it could be a red flag.
A 2018 study by MIT researchers found that false news travels faster than real news — often much faster. That's because it's often designed to grab people's attention by connecting with their emotions, such as fear or outrage. The researchers, who studied how false news travels on Twitter, also found that misinformation spreads quickly because people retweet it, not due to bot activity. It's easy to get caught up in the moment and retweet a terrifying headline before reading the accompanying article. But pausing before reposting can save you from embarrassment and prevent falsehoods from spreading farther.
Bad actors and trolls looking to exploit people's fears around coronavirus are using a variety of techniques to sow confusion. False news articles are just a small part of this.
Photos and videos can be edited and altered, and real images can be presented out of context. Again, it helps to look for the source. Google's reverse image search can help find the origins of a photo. For videos, take a look at who uploaded it — was it a random user? A news outlet? The CDC?
Americans have a duty not to add to an already anxious time by spreading misinformation that could alarm others — or put them at risk, said Dr. Ruth Parker, a physician at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta and an expert on health literacy.
“It’s a scary time,” Parker said. “We don’t want to add fuel to the fire. Good information won’t cure us, but it will help to calm us.”
The Associated Press receives support for health and science coverage from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.