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A Social Media Pandemic

Credit: Consumer Reports

Misinformation about COVID-19 is still spreading almost as fast as the coronavirus itself.  People are understandably anxious for news about how to stay safe amid the pandemic, but many are turning to a double-headed hydra of misinformation: social media and their immediate personal networks. Like the many-headed serpent in Greek mythology whose heads grew back as soon as they were cut off, much of the information shared on social media or among family and friends reappears almost as quickly as it’s debunked. According to a survey by the Pew Research Center earlier this month, about half of U.S. adults have encountered false information about COVID-19. As the tagline on our News Literacy Matters website states, all information is not created equal, and this is especially true on social media where most posts have not been vetted or fact-checked.

Here’s the good news: On March 15, seven social media platforms (Facebook, Microsoft, Google, Twitter, YouTube, Reddit and Linked-In)  said they are stepping up their efforts to take down misinformation and connect people with reliable news. Although Facebook has come under intense criticism for failing to fact-check political ads, it is now removing posts that make false claims about COVID-19 cures and treatments that could harm people, and labeling content that has been proved false. It is also putting the latest information about the pandemic at the top of its 2.5 billion users’ news feeds through its COVID-19 Information Center, which directs people to health authorities like the World Health Organization and CDC. It’s too soon to say how effective these strategies will be, but some experts in this Verge article by Casey Newton think the backlash against tech companies is subsiding and that they are slowly rebuilding public trust in their platforms. 

The more intransigent source of misinformation is people we may trust most—our family and friends. People are connecting by phone, Zoom, email and text at an unprecedented rate to share information about the pandemic, much of it misleading and even dangerous. Unfortunately, misinformation is not one of those “You know it when you see it” things, and we are all especially susceptible to believing it during a fast-moving crisis, doubly so when it comes from someone in our network. I received this post below, allegedly from the Stanford University Hospital board, from three different family members or friends. Although I’ll admit it sounds authoritative and credible, it’s not. The falsehoods include instructing people to hold their breath for 10 seconds to see if they have the coronavirus and that drinking warm water is effective against all viruses. FactCheck.org debunked this post on March 12, but it is still circulating. Everyone who sent it to me was well-intentioned and trying to make sense of this pandemic. Many of them say they are overwhelmed by the tsunami of information surrounding the coronavirus and unwittingly passing on everything that comes their way.

So what can be done? 

I love the 20-second rule, which is not just for washing your hands. According to the News Literacy Project’s Peter Adams, we should all take 20 seconds to research any information before sharing it. In the USA Today article, “Welcome to the First Social Media Pandemic” by Jessica Guynn, Adams says you can do a lot of fact-checking in just 20 seconds. He recommends checking the comments section to see if anyone has posted a link to a fact-check of the claim or opening another tab to do a quick Google search on the claim (aka lateral reading!) 

Other suggestions include:

  • Check out any potential cures with the CDC or WHO before sharing them
  • Beware of posts that incite fear and outrage, or conversely, posts that are just too reassuring to be true
  • Refute information from friends and family members that could be dangerous even if it’s uncomfortable
  • Gently steer friends and family members who share misinformation to reputable news sites. The New York Times correspondent Rukmini Callimachi has some suggestions in this excellent  10-point Twitter post.

The digital age has created the demand for a new kind of literacy—one that empowers news consumers to determine whether information is credible, reliable and truthful. This is not just a skill; it is a new core competency, now with potentially life-and-death consequences during our first social media pandemic.