Coronavirus: a misinformation overload

Why misinformation goes viral and how we can prevent it

May 11, 2020 

"Plandemic" is the latest example of viral misinformation 

Last week, a video called “Plandemic: The Hidden Agenda Behind Covid-19,” was widely circulated on social media and viewed more than 10 million times. The 26-minute video contained misinformation, conspiracy theories and relied on the expertise of a widely discredited researcher.

The video is an example of how anxiety about the virus has inflamed another problem, what the World Heath Organization is calling the “infodemic:” a hurricane of information about the coronavirus, much of it inaccurate, false and misleading. Recent examples include conspiracy theories about Bill Gate’s supposed effort to profit from the vaccine, or 5G mobile technology damaging people’s immune systems, making them more vulnerable.

Uncertainty around the new virus has naturally created a hunger for information, and there’s no lack of it, especially on social media. According to research from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, roughly a third of social media users reported seeing misinformation on their feeds in March and April of 2020.

Why so much misinformation about the coronvirus?

As researchers struggle to understand the virus, information from official sources has not always been consistent. That inconsistency makes it harder for the public to trust official sources said Dr. Yang Chen, a crisis communication researcher at North Carolina State University.

“The CDC originally said don’t buy masks, then they changed their guidance,” she said. “And there has been so much inconsistency around data: the number of deaths and the number of infections. It’s very confusing to the public.”

According to Dr. Cheng, emotions like doubt and anger also play a big role in misinformation, as posts that inflame emotion tend to go viral. Cheng’s previous research involves a piece of fake news that circulated several years ago, claiming that Dasani water was tainted by a parasite.

“Because people wanted to protect their family and friends, they shared it on social media,” said Cheng. 

The problem is compounded by how fast the scientific community is trying to respond to the coronavirus: research processes that generally take months are happening in weeks, and flawed research has happened.

The public wants definitive answers, and with the coronavirus (and other areas of evolving research), providing answers quickly isn’t always possible. (For example, wearing a face mask is effective but not all the time, and only if you wear it correctly).

How to protect yourself and others from misinformation

There’s a lot stacked up against you when trying to separate good information from bad, including the belief that you’re invulnerable to fake news. According to Cheng’s research, people are more likely to assume that others are more affected by misinformation than themselves.

But nobody wants to be guilty of spreading bad information. So, here’s some basics on what to do before you post: 

1. Check the source…And more sources

If the origin of the information doesn’t look like a legitimate news source, Google other sources to see if they’re reporting the same information. If you’re worried about media bias, check your news organization’s reputation on the Media Bias/ Fact Check website. Even if you do trust your news source, it’s important to get information from multiple sources.

Also, because coronavirus information is constantly changing, the publication date matters. Make sure the information is as current as possible.

2. Scientific publications are more trustworthy that anecdotes from friends and family

Many of us have friends or family in medical fields. But basing information solely on what “my friend who’s a doctor says…” doesn’t compare with rigorous scientific research.

Scientific research is often agonizingly slow, and relies on reproducibility, or repeated experiments to validate earlier results. Research is vetted by other professionals, a process that can take months and years.

During the coronavirus, that timeline has been sped up, which can lead to more mistakes than usual. However, research that relies on larger sample sizes (like the number of patients who received x treatment) is a better source of information than a few anecdotes from friends. Sources that rely on scientific research like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the WHO are safe bets, as well as news sites that specialize in top-notch health reporting, like Stat News.

3. Correct others, but gently

It can be infuriating seeing your Facebook friend share something you don’t agree with. But responding with contempt isn’t helpful. Being empathetic to someone else’s fears is more effective. Sharing links from trusted sources also helps, and doing so publicly is even better. That way, the correct information is amplified beyond the original post.

Recent research shows that social media users were actively engaged in correcting each other and that others valued that correction.

 Here’s more fact-checking resources:

1. The World Health Organization's Myth-Busting Website

2. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for general information

3. Stat News for latest health news

4. North Carolina Department of Health and Human Resources for local information