There is no shortage of news about COVID-19 online. The World Health Organization (WHO) is calling the over-abundance of good and bad information an infodemic—"making it hard for people to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance when they need it."
Axios earlier this month reported that the number of likes, comments, and shares on stories about coronavirus on social media have increased 7x, and Google searches have increased 8x, according to Google Trends data. And false news stories are 70% more likely to be retweeted than true stories are, according to a study by MIT.
Why we're so susceptible to misinformation
There are three main reasons why spotting misinformation in the moment can be challenging—even for people who work within the health care ecosystem:
- News stories and social media posts contain a mix of accurate and inaccurate information. Misinformation is often masked by facts, quotes, and data from reputable sources. As a result, a whole story can seem credible at first, only to discover as you read closely the facts don't add up.
- Information is shared by someone you trust. While information may come from a trusted colleague or a beloved family member, it's important to remember that individual motives for sharing information can be influenced by a variety of factors. Attitudes toward medicine and health care, perceptions of authority, degree of scientific literacy, ability to verify information independently, and personal beliefs all shape the information people believe and share. As a result, it can be easy to unknowingly accept misinformation.
- People skim headlines, without reading the full story. These headlines can be highly emotional, based on individual/personal accounts, and/or politically charged. As a result, people are likely to quickly accept someone else's perspective without fully assessing the underlying details—including the author, the data and evidence cited, and the credibility of the publication, all of which are key indicators of misinformation.
How to spot misinformation
As we scramble to keep up with COVID-19 news, you are likely to come across coronavirus misinformation. Here are three red flags to watch for before you accept any new information:
- The information or news is based on a personal story. A personal experience is a common vehicle for misinformation because it is relatable and appeals to emotion, fear, and anxiety. For example, text messages about a national quarantine, in which the author claims to know someone who works at a clinic or government agency, recently proliferated across the country. The National Security Council quickly shut down this circulating misinformation, but it highlights how some misinformation exists buried under seemingly credible personal anecdotes.
- You can't find a reputable outlet reporting the same thing. When assessing information in posts, messages, and other news articles, check it against trusted voices. It's likely that if you can't find a piece of information on a reputable source, it's false. Reputable news sources like the Axios, Stat News, the New York Times—and of course Daily Briefing—are fact-checking COVID-19 misinformation and staying on top of emerging myths. For non-media sources turn to WHO and CDC.
- You have an immediate strong reaction. Misinformation tends to trigger anxiety, fear, or create a sense of surprise and disgust, according to research from MIT. Generally, fact-based articles are not extremely sensationalized. Pay attention to your reactions to different sources of news when trying to distinguish fact from fiction.
How to stop the spread of misinformation
It's not just reporters who can get ahead of misinformation. Below are five steps you can take to respond and stop the spread of misinformation in real-time:
- Follow and share trusted sources of information with your networks. In addition to news sources' official accounts on social media, top medical experts and health care leaders are good sources of real-time, accurate information about COVID-19. Share these sources with your networks to overcrowd misinformation and rebut false claims.
- Recognize that misinformation isn't just about the virus itself. Information about potential city lockdowns, expected timelines national social distancing measures, and the availability of drugs/treatments for coronavirus, are also subject to exaggeration or false claims.
- Respond with more accurate information when possible. As you see posts or hear false information, comment or message the accounts to direct them to verified sources.
- Get ahead of rumors within your organization. Chances are you've got plenty of rumors about COVID-19 circulating at your organization, fueling staff uncertainty and anxiety. In addition to combatting rumors in the moment, we've identified three ways you can proactively surface and address rumors and get ahead of misinformation before it surfaces.
- Report misinformation when you see it. Major tech giants and social media platforms like Google, Facebook and Twitter are taking preventative measures to combat coronavirus misinformation online—but individuals should still take precaution. Use the "report" function on social media to call out faulty information when you see it, and comment/report posts that contain inaccurate information.
There's a lot of misinformation out there—but many steps you can take to combat it today. For more resources on coronavirus, visit Advisory Board's top resources for coronavirus readiness.