The coronavirus disease is now a pandemic. You might feel like the world is slipping into an abyss, but every one of us can do something to keep those around us safe. Yes, this includes washing our hands properly. It also includes fighting the misinformation that is galloping around the world.
In moments like this people are very unsure of what to do and who to trust. But the biggest factor in this fight might be whether people will follow advice designed to keep them safe. Around the world, people trust government much less than they used to. This is simply not a great time for health authorities to cut through fake news.
Some of this misinformation has been created by people who mean well but aren’t experts in a relevant field of medicine or science. Some is created by people who look like they have expertise but have profit motives in mind. And some appears to be deliberate disinformation — falsehoods spread by political actors seeking to cause social harm to other countries. There are now many conspiracy theories about the coronavirus disease. Not all of this is visible. Many people are emailing and using chat-groups to spread rumours and straight-out hoaxes about coronavirus disease to their friends thinking they’re being helpful. All of this poses real problems for both the people trying to give accurate information and for those trying to find it.
As the WHO Director General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said recently, “…we’re not just battling the virus, we’re also battling the trolls and conspiracy theories that undermine our response.”
What we’re seeing now is an infodemic — when viral misinformation causes illness and death. While both public health officials and social media companies scramble to stem the supply of misinformation, this won’t succeed when so many people want to share interesting lies. When this happens it crowds out legitimate medical advice, which is often often so boring compared to the alternative. Who really wants to watch a bureaucrat washing their hands, when there are famous actors, super-models, and celebrity chefs talking about how they try to stay healthy. For many people the allure of a cure will make them less careful. People tend to just seek information that confirms what they want to be true. And who doesn’t want a miracle cure for a new disease? Everybody does. That’s why research shows that on social media at least, fake news travels to more people more quickly than factual information that is constrained by having to tell the truth. But even though misinformation is often amplified by twitter bots and troll farms, just like a virus, it won’t spread far if people don’t pass it on.
And you only have to visit your local suburban supermarket’s toilet paper aisle to see the real-world impact misinformation can have.
There are some very simple things you can do to stop coronavirus disease misinformation. First, make sure you don’t accidentally promote anything that might be harmful. Find out whether information is correct and useful before hitting “like” or “share”. But in today’s social media environment, knowing what is true and what isn’t can be hard, and even normally cautious people can fail to spot the information from the misinformation when dealing with complicated topics like viruses.
You can check information by using fact-checkers like Snopes.com or Full Fact. If you find someone making misinformation, you can also report it to the Coronavirus Misinformation Tracking Center. You can even train yourself to spot fake news, effectively immunising yourself against it.
And right now there are scientists waiting to answer your questions about corona virus disease.
As always, never ever share anything that makes a scientific claim that isn’t backed by scientific evidence.
If you’re not sure, don’t’ share.
But none of this means you need to stop talking about the coronavirus. You can put your social media account to good use. You don’t have to be an immunologist or a virologist to play a useful part if you do it carefully. The best thing you can do is to simply like or share relevant information from official sources who are likely to be legitimate and credible. Some places to start are the World Health Organisation and national government health agencies such as the Centres for Disease Control in the United States, the NHS in the UK, or Australia’s Department of Health. Yes, these are government organisations but don’t let your feelings about your government’s political leaders colour your thinking. These organisations have access to the latest data about the outbreak. Not only are they very careful to make sure their information is correct, they hire communication experts specifically trained to make sure their language is clear and easy to understand. You don’t have to provide an explanation if you just share information from these sources, which means you can avoid making a mistake about a topic you might not be confident about. And sharing credible information on social media doesn’t just help your networks see it, it promotes it to others due to the social media algorithms used by platforms like Facebook and Twitter.
Do share information from trusted sources with a comment from you showing how this might be relevant for your group of friends. You don’t need to have a huge audience for this to be effective, because research has shown that people put more trust in information from people who like each other or who are similar to themselves. So, you might be able to help a few people who are close to you, even if you’re not a celebrity or a super-model.
And if you’re confident enough, talk about where to find trusted information outside of your social media networks too. Just talking with your family over dinner is an easy place show people where to get credible information that could keep them safe from harm as this crisis gets worse.
Finally, it is rarely worth getting into a dragged-out argument with anyone about this topic. People with strong attitudes are hard to shift and it is not worth losing friends over something you can’t change.
Coronavirus misinformation will make this epidemic much more severe and to we are all susceptible to it. But there are some ways to fight misinformation — and they are things that we can all do to help keep our communities and networks safe from harm.
Wash your hands. If you’re not sure, don’t share. Promote facts.