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Q: Why is there so much conflicting information about the coronavirus, and what should we believe?

Credit: who.int

A:

While public health officials warn of a pandemic, the internet’s frenzied coverage of the coronavirus has already triggered an “infodemic.” The word infodemic is a relatively new term blending information with epidemic. It describes the overwhelming amount of information about the coronavirus now populating the internet and social media platforms. Some of it is accurate, but even more is misleading or outright wrong. The situation is so dire that the World Health Organization says that false information is spreading faster than the virus.

This tide of false information is extremely dangerous because it undermines trust in public institutions and preys on people’s fears—precisely the goal of whoever is behind the misinformation. When people are overwhelmed by competing narratives, it sows confusion and drowns out the factual information that people need to make rational decisions. They become suspicious of all information and start to tune out because they don’t know who or what they can trust, leading to what scholars call the “censorship of noise.”

There is a news literacy skill you can use to make sure you aren’t vulnerable to this cycle of misinformation: evaluate the source. This is the first thing to remember when looking for accurate information about the coronavirus. While no one source of information is perfect, health agencies that rely on scientific evidence like the Centers for Disease Control or the World Health Organization should be your first stop.

Major news outlets that have demonstrated expertise in health reporting are also reliable sources for factual information. Both the New York Times and Wall Street Journal now have pages that offer live updates about the coronavirus and stories covering everything from basic FAQs to the potential impact on the economy. 

Stay away from social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, TikTok, and other platforms that have been inundated with misinformation designed to mislead people and profit from selling bogus cures or treatments. Facebook finally started taking down posts claiming that drinking bleach cures the coronavirus, and Google has agreed to rank authoritative sources higher when people search for information on the virus, but they simply cannot stay ahead of the rumor and conspiracy mill.

So, when in doubt, check it out. If you come across something that seems too outlandish, use your lateral reading skills and google key phrases to see if reputable news outlets are reporting the same thing. Or go to this myth-busting site from the World Health Organization. There you will learn that hand dryers in restrooms will not kill the virus, nor will spraying chlorine all over your body. There is also no evidence that eating garlic or rubbing yourself with sesame oil will protect you. Fact-checkers from 30 countries are working around the clock to debunk false information like this swarming the internet, much of it about a miraculous vaccine or cure, the source of the virus and conspiracy theories that the virus was manmade.

But until tech companies tackle the inherent problems with a business model that incentivizes clicks, not much will change.   Misinformation is a dangerous virus contaminating our information eco-system, undermining trust in fact-based media, and fomenting fear. News literacy is our best defense against all three.