Let’s flatten the infodemic curve
Addressing misinformation and disinformation in social media -- the distinction between the two is important and its explained below -- is crucial to ending the pandemic and pursuing healthy public policy. The following is an article from the World Health Organization (available here), which, in turn, adapted it from an article by Siouxsie Wiles & Toby Morris that appeared in The Spinoff (available here). If you want to read the WHO article with all the graphics, go here. I am including the WHO article under creative commons.
We are all being exposed to a huge amount of COVID-19 information on a daily basis, and not all of it is reliable. Here are some tips for telling the difference and stopping the spread of misinformation.
Due to COVID-19, most of us have a new word in our vocabulary: epidemiology. It is the branch of medical science that deals with the ways diseases are transmitted and can be controlled in a population. Now it is time to learn another new word: infodemiology.
As humans, we are a curious and innovative species. We want to understand the world around us and stay up to date on the challenges we face and how to overcome them. One of the ways we do this is by seeking out and sharing information – lots of it. Even scientists around the world are working hard to keep up with the thousands of studies that have come out since COVID-19 appeared.
But it is not only scientific studies. There are also official communications from governments and health agencies around the world. Then there are news articles and opinion pieces, and messages from vloggers, bloggers, podcasters and social media influencers. You may also see information shared by friends and family on social media or messaging apps.
All of this is called the infodemic: a flood of information on the COVID-19 pandemic. Infodemiology is the study of that information and how to manage it.
Here are seven steps you can take to navigate this wave of information and decide who and what to trust:
1. Assess the source
Who shared the information with you and where did they get it from? Even if it is friends or family, you still need to vet their source. To check for fake social media accounts, look at how long profiles have been active, their number of followers and their most recent posts. For websites, check the “About Us” and “Contact Us” pages to look for background information and legitimate contact details.
When it comes to images or videos, make it a habit to verify their authenticity. For images, you can use reverse image search tools provided by Google and TinEye. For videos, you can use Amnesty International's YouTube DatViewer, which extracts thumbnails that you can enter into reverse image search tools.
Other clues that a source may be unreliable or inaccurate include unprofessional visual design, poor spelling and grammar, or excessive use of all caps or exclamation points.
2. Go beyond headlines
Headlines may be intentionally sensational or provocative to get high numbers of clicks. Read more than just the headline of an article – go further and look at the entire story. Search more widely than social media for information – look at print sources such as newspapers and magazines, and digital sources such as podcasts and online news sites. Diversifying your sources allows you to get a better picture of what is or is not trustworthy.
3. Identify the author
Search the author’s name online to see if they are real or credible.
4. Check the date
When you come across information, ask yourself these questions: Is this a recent story? Is it up to date and relevant to current events? Has a headline, image or statistic been used out of context?
5. Examine the supporting evidence
Credible stories back up their claims with facts – for example, quotes from experts or links to statistics or studies. Verify that experts are reliable and that links actually support the story
6. Check your biases
We all have biases, and these factor into how we view what’s happening around us. Evaluate your own biases and why you may have been drawn to a particular headline or story. What is your interpretation of it? Why did you react to it that way? Does it challenge your assumptions or tell you what you want to hear? What did you learn about yourself from your interpretation or reaction?
7. Turn to fact-checkers
When in doubt, consult trusted fact-checking organizations, such as the International Fact-Checking Network and global news outlets focused on debunking misinformation, including the Associated Press and Reuters.
Information, misinformation and disinformation
Information is what we call things that are accurate to the best of our current knowledge. For instance, COVID-19 stands for coronavirus disease 2019 and is caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus. One of the difficulties with any new pathogen, like this coronavirus, is that information changes over time as we learn more about the science.
Misinformation, on the other hand, is false information. Importantly, it is false information that was not created with the intention of hurting others. Misinformation is often started by someone who genuinely wants to understand a topic and cares about keeping other people safe and well. It is then shared by others who feel the same. Everyone believes they are sharing good information – but unfortunately, they are not. And depending on what is being shared, the misinformation can turn out to be quite harmful.
At the other end of the spectrum is disinformation. Unlike misinformation, this is false information created with the intention of profiting from it or causing harm. That harm could be to a person, a group of people, an organization or even a country. Disinformation generally serves some agenda and can be dangerous. During this pandemic, we are seeing it used to try to erode our trust in each other and in our government and public institutions.
How to navigate misinformation and disinformation
It helps to think of misinformation and disinformation spreading in the same way as viruses. One person might share fake news with their friends and family, and then a handful of them share it with more of their friends and family, and before you know it, potentially harmful or dangerous information is taking over everyone’s newsfeed.
But just as we can protect against COVID-19 with hand washing, physical distancing and masks, we can slow down the spread of misinformation and disinformation by practising some information hygiene. Before sharing something, ask yourself these questions:
How does this make me feel?
Why am I sharing this?
How do I know if it’s true?
Where did it come from?
Whose agenda might I be supporting by sharing it?
If you know something is false, or if it makes you angry, don’t share it to debunk it or make fun of it. That just spreads the misinformation or disinformation further. Learn more about how you can report misinformation online.
Good places to go for reliable information are the websites of your national Ministry of Health or the World Health Organization. Remember, though: information will change as we learn more about the virus.