“COVID-19“

How to Avoid Misinformation About COVID-19

False information about the pandemic is rampant; here’s how experts say you can identify what news to trust and what might be faulty

Almost a fourth of Americans have shared fake news at one point or another, according to a Pew survey from 2016, so it's important to be skeptical as you're browsing the web or watching TV. (Visual Generation / iStock)
smithsonianmag.com

In mid-February, World Health Organization director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told an international security conference: “We’re not just fighting an epidemic. We’re fighting an infodemic.”

As COVID-19 cases have surged across the globe, so has misinformation. According to research by the Bruno Kessler Foundation in Italy, every day in March 2020 an average of 46,000 new posts on Twitter linked to inaccurate or misleading information about the crisis. The rapidly changing situation means that people are naturally grasping for information about the pandemic. So what’s the best way to separate the trustworthy from the fake? Smithsonian asked experts who study science communication and misinformation what readers should keep in mind while watching the news, reading an article or scanning Facebook.

Why COVID-19 Misinformation Spreads

If you’ve found yourself unsure whether a soundbite or headline you saw or shared was true, know that you’re not alone, says Dietram Scheufele, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who studies science and political communication. Uncertainty and anxiety about the pandemic, combined with the political overtones and partisanship that influence how we respond to new information, create an environment ripe for misinformation. Research on political misinformation suggests emotions like anxiety and anger impact how people process fake news, which itself often goes viral due to its ability to provoke emotion. On top of that, nearly half of Americans polled by the Pew Research Center agreed in 2017 that “[t]he public doesn’t really know enough about science to understand findings in the news.”

Another fact to remember: We are all more gullible than we might think. A 2016 Pew survey found that 23 percent of Americans reported sharing fake news at one point or another. When shown untrue or misleading articles about COVID-19, only 30 percent of people recognized the news to be false, according to research published in the Washington Post by New York University and Stanford researchers.

“When we see something, the first thing we want to do is believe it,” says Reyhaneh Maktoufi, who researches misinformation as a Rita Allen Foundation Civic Science Fellow at NOVA WGBH.

But it’s easy to fight misinformation, too: Simply taking a moment to pause and assess the accuracy of the information you’re spreading helps. People are less likely to share COVID-19 misinformation after being “nudged” to consider the accuracy of an unrelated headline, according to a study researchers at the MIT Sloan School of Management and the University of Regina in Canada just published on a preprint (not yet peer-reviewed) server.

Maktoufi advises a three-step process: Check the source, check the author and check the content. Read on for a step-by-step guide explaining the expert-recommended way to vet news, plus guidance for what to do if someone you know shares misinformation.

Table of Contents

How do you know whether a news source is trustworthy?

If the source isn’t one you’re familiar with, then Google it to make sure it is a legitimate news organization, says Emily K. Vraga, an associate professor in mass communication at the University of Minnesota who researches health misinformation on social media. The site “Media Bias/Fact Check” rates various news organizations on “factual reporting” as well as ideological skew. Major health organizations such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and World Health Organization (WHO) are among the most credible sources of information on the COVID-19 pandemic.

Once you’ve made sure that the news source is reliable, Scheufele and Maktoufi recommend checking out the author. Consider whether the writer is a coronavirus or pandemic expert or just a scientist in a related field. If the author is a journalist, check to see what their usual beat is. Is this a health reporter with experience covering scientific topics?

Another rule of thumb: “Don’t just rely on one source,” Scheufele says. Instead, practice what communication scholars call “lateral reading” and gather information from a variety of diverse news sources. If a certain conclusion appears repeatedly in different reliable sources, that should increase your confidence in it.

How do I make sure the information in a report is legitimate? What are red flags to watch out for?

Check when the story was published. “Especially for COVID-19 [news], the date matters so much,” Vraga says, because “a lot of the facts on the ground may have changed,” like case counts.

Try to determine where the information presented is coming from. Is it from a state epidemiologist, the CDC or another trusted organization? If there’s a link to the source, click on that link to double-check the data yourself. The “click the links” rule also applies to scrolling past headlines on social media: Read the article before you share.

“Take a deep breath and be skeptical,” Vraga says, especially when you see the following red flags: too-good-to-be-true headlines or news that plays strongly to emotional cues instead of taking a level-headed approach.

What should I know about how scientific research works? How can I tell strong research from weak research?

In a 2016 National Science Board survey, 77 percent of Americans said they didn't understand or couldn't define the concept of a 'scientific study.' “Science is always an iterative, ongoing, self-correcting process,” Vraga says. Treat any single study as a blurry data point that needs further research to back it up and put it in sharper detail. The scientific community calls this reproducibility, which a 2015 National Science Foundation report defines as the "ability of a researcher to duplicate the results of a prior study using the same materials and procedures." If this process reveals a major error in the original team’s work, which happens rarely, the research will be retracted, which signals to the scientific community that the data is flawed or unreliable. Academic journals may withdraw retracted studies from publication, but news of that retraction may not necessarily make it into previous coverage of that research in a more mainstream news outlet.

Studies are typically put through a rigorous vetting process known as peer review during which scientists who were not involved will double check the team's results before the study is published in a reputable scientific journal. The peer-review process can take up to weeks or months, but in these unprecedented times, researchers around the world have turned away from their usual work to run a full-court press on COVID-19, expediting the pace of science. In February, a Reuters report showed that of 153 studies published on COVID-19 at the time, 92 had not yet been peer reviewed and 3 had been retracted.

Likewise, news about drug and vaccine trials should be approached with caution, since clinical trials involve multiple, time-consuming rounds of testing to ensure treatments are both safe and effective for humans.

Because science is so specialized, it’s unrealistic to expect yourself to vet a scientific study all on your own, Scheufele says. Instead, he suggests asking these questions: “Is the study peer-reviewed? Is it in a reputable journal? Do the authors work at a top-tier university? And if the study is covered by news media, what do other independent experts think of the results?”

If a study runs contrary to current scientific consensus, that warrants extra skepticism, he adds. Vraga suggests checking a study’s sample size (how many people or datapoints were involved) to know whether a study might be too small to be generalizable to the larger population. Finally, Scheufele says, “If a study makes absolute claims without any acknowledgment of uncertainties or caveats, it’s probably too good to be true.”

There are a lot of “my friend who is a healthcare provider at X hospital says,” posts circulating on social media lately. Should I trust these?

“The plural of anecdote is not data,” Scheufele says. In other words: Be wary of treating one person or one healthcare worker’s experience as broadly generalizable.

What should I know when looking at a chart, image or infographic circulating on social media?

For an image or video—such as the widely circulated video falsely claiming a dolphin had been spotted in Venetian canals when the video was actually from the southern Italian island of Sardinia—try running the photo or a video frame through a reverse image search tool like Google Images.

Both Bang Wong, who leads the Broad Institute’s data visualization group Pattern, and Alberto Cuadra, Science magazine’s lead graphics editor, encourage readers to seek out context for charts or infographics. Look for an explanation of the graphic from a reputable source, read the axis labels carefully, see where the data depicted came from and pay attention to the units of measurement. For example, cases per capita, overall cases and growth rate are three different metrics to understand which areas have severe outbreaks, but recognize that test availability—how many possibly sick people are able to get tested and counted—might skew those numbers.

How do I judge whether an information source is twisting the facts to suit a political narrative?

“Look at the content and see: Who is it benefitting?” Maktoufi says. “Is it benefiting a specific group or partisan group or company?” You can also compare statements you’re unsure about with the coverage at specialized journalistic sources (like Stat News, which focuses on health coverage) and information from career civil servants at the CDC and FDA.

What should I do if someone in my social circle shares information I know is false?

Don’t be condescending or cruel. Your friend, acquaintance or family member is likely well intentioned and anxious about the disease, just like you. Gently correct them and link to an unimpeachably credible source, Maktoufi says.

That last step is critical. A few years ago, Vraga showed hundreds of college students participating in her study simulated Facebook and Twitter feeds containing a misinformed post about the Zika virus. When the made-up commenters linked to a source (Snopes or the CDC) in their corrections, it made the students less likely to agree with the falsehood when asked about it later, whereas unsourced corrections didn’t persuade them.

You might phrase a polite correction like this, Vraga suggests: “I understand that this is scary and we’re all looking for solutions, but the best evidence is…” Go on to state exactly what that best evidence shows in case whoever reads that comment doesn’t click through on your link. Avoid restating the myth—you don’t want bad information circulating any further.

If there’s already another correcting comment, Vraga says, then back up that person, ideally by commenting yourself and linking to a distinct source. Research suggests that if you’re close to someone, your correction has a higher chance 0f sticking.

What should I do if I accidentally share inaccurate information?

If you realize you’ve already shared misinformation, Vraga says you should self-correct, ideally by deleting the original, inaccurate statement and create a new post, email or text—whichever platform you originally shared it on—with the accurate information. Alternatively, you can prominently update your original post with the correction, although people may not see the updated version on their feeds. Plus, thank the friend who tipped you off to the error.

Expert-recommended reliable sources:

Misinformation/Myth-busting pages:

  • The WHO maintains a “Myth Busters” page debunking COVID-19 misinformation
  • Researchers from the Ryerson Social Media Lab in Canada are tracking COVID-19 misinformation and matching false claims with fact-checks. As of April 8th, their tracker has 1,714 entries classified as false, misleading, unproven or manipulated.
  • NewsGuard lists websites that have propagated COVID-19 misinformation
  • Media Bias/Fact Check
  • Wikipedia has a fairly thorough list of “fake news” websites
  • Find trusted fact-checkers on this list of news organizations that part of the International Fact-Checking Network
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