In the words of the World Health Organization’s director-general, the world is currently fighting not only a pandemic, but also an “infodemic.” Approximately 46,000 tweets per day were linked to inaccurate information in March 2020 alone. With anger and anxiety among the population especially high with the COVID-19 outbreak, people are even more susceptible to fake news.
The “Why” Behind Misinformation
Fake news goes viral largely due to its ability to provoke emotion. Fake bot accounts on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and other social media sites capitalize on the heightened fear rampant among the population during this period of crisis by spreading alarm and misinformation. The accounts do this in several ways–some engage in comment fights or subtweet battles with legitimate sources to discredit them, and others to bait anxious people into interacting with their posts.
Moreover, propagators of misinformation play to the tendencies of human nature–society naturally offers rewards for drawing attention. Because the situation is changing so quickly, the prevalence of attention-grabbing bots in combination with the uncertainty, politicization, and partisanship surrounding the whole crisis make for a perfect storm of fake news.
To compound the problem, the general populace is not sufficiently scientifically knowledgeable to distinguish fact from fiction in many cases. According to the Smithsonian Magazine, research published by the Washington Post shows that only 30% of Americans identified a piece of untrue news as false in a study where they were presented with fake news. With some of the COVID-19-related fake news appearing to be advice from medical professionals, the spread of such false information can cost literal lives.
Towards a Solution: A Brief Guide to Fact-Checking Your Information
Though misinformation is a problem larger than any one person, every individual effort to mitigate it helps. There are a few steps every consumer of news should take to minimize their personal contribution to the spread of false information.
First, try to spot and avoid engaging with bot accounts. Bots on social media platforms often have a few common traits. They tend to have long alphanumeric handles, publish very few tweets themselves, and spread alarmist comments, often by following authoritative sources and engaging with their material. Specifically on Twitter, bot accounts tend to have joined the platform pretty recently, and they sometimes have no last name.
Second, check every piece of news for its author, source, and content. Credible authors should have background and expertise relevant to the topics of their articles or papers. The information should also come from a reputable and preferably unbiased source. A Google search in combination with a check on mediabiasfactcheck.com is helpful in determining if an unfamiliar source is trustworthy. For scientific studies, check if a paper has been peer-reviewed and if independent experts generally concur with the results of the paper. Lastly, it is crucial to click links and read any content before sharing. If the content pulls emotional strings or seems too good to be true, it probably is. A useful strategy for assessing content is “lateral reading”: search for the information in the source in a diverse set of other sources. If there are many discrepancies, the information in the original source is likely untrue.
Another piece of a source that should be checked is the date of its publication. Especially for such a rapidly evolving situation like COVID-19, information that is outdated may be misleading or false, even if it was true and thoroughly credible at the time of its publication.
Of course, information comes not only in textual forms but also in visual forms. To verify that images are legitimate, run a reverse search on Google Images by dragging the image in question into the Google Images search bar.
Finally, should a piece of information be found to be false, avoid amplifying the falsehood in any form–not even in a post stating and correcting it. The more attention that a piece of fake news draws, the more it spreads. It is important not to assume that people–even trusted family members or friends–sharing a piece of information have thoroughly fact-checked it. If you are going to share information, it is your responsibility to verify its source.
It May Be Time to Unplug
Thoroughly fact-checking every source may sound tiring. Given the myriad of other things people have to worry about during a global pandemic, this is understandable and valid. However, there is hope. According to Professors Jevin West and Carl Bergstrom of the University of Washington, the best way to combat fake news may be to minimize the possibility of exposure. After all, you cannot worsen the spread of fake news without sharing anything or engaging with any content. Removing yourself from the deluge of information probably also benefits to your mental health.
A disclaimer: if you are an expert in the fields of epidemiology or public health policy or if you have the mental energy to dedicate thorough research to every piece of information you encounter, by all means do so. However, if you do not fall into one of these categories, it is not only acceptable but also beneficial to limit your COVID-19 information exposure to official sources (i.e. the UN, WHO, and CDC) and anything directly relevant to your personal situation. If you must still use social media, block some trending hashtags so that you don’t get overloaded with potentially fake news. You are already saving lives and doing your part to stop the spread just by staying home, washing your hands, and taking common sense precautions such as wearing a mask when leaving home for essential tasks. By curbing your engagement with potentially false information that has dangerous consequences if perceived as the truth, you are doing both yourself and the world a service. Ironically, it may be time to unplug.