Inside Scoop: Here are some ways to spot misinformation and find accurate information about the Coronavirus pandemic.

This article was submitted by Leesa Klich, MSc, R.H.N., Health Writer, Blogging Expert, Research Nerd.

There is currently an “infodemic” (information pandemic) about all things coronavirus. You’ve probably heard a lot of conflicting “facts” about how to prevent and treat COVID-19. Not to mention where the virus came from and the best way to move forward for public health and our economies. Yep, health information in the media and online is moving fast and confusing. And some of it is completely false. But, how do you really know what to believe?

The good news is that there are several trustworthy sites that are fact-checking coronavirus information which are linked for you below. Plus, we’ll share a few common “red flags” that can tip you off as to whether that latest post is less than legit and whether you should take the health advice they’re recommending. Or not!

WHAT IS HEALTH MISINFORMATION?

 

The coronavirus pandemic didn’t launch the beginning of health misinformation on the internet, but it has increased it[https://bmcmedicine.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12916-020-01556-3]. Historically many areas of health have been the subject of misinformation—including nutrition. I mean, doesn’t every food seem to both cause and prevent cancer, depending on the day?

Some misinformation is simply due to misunderstandings and some has been purposely created with the intent to fool us. According to a news feature in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences[https://www.pnas.org/content/pnas/114/48/12631.full.pdf], there are seven types of misinformation. These range from satire and parody, to false content, all the way to fabricated content. In other words, some misinformation is meant to poke fun (and not be taken seriously), some is a misunderstanding, and some really is totally made up with the intention to deceive.

Why would anyone want to deceive people about their health? That’s a great question? I’ve seen people speculate that their goals might be to confuse, provoke, and stoke divisions between different groups of people. Intentional misinformation is carefully crafted to sow mistrust in experts by pushing key emotional hot buttons. (Hint: Evoking certain emotions is one of the common “red flags” we share with you below). 

The tricky thing is that people are getting savvy and creative about how to make misinformation look and sound believable and make it oh-so-spreadable online. It’s becoming more and more difficult to recognize. Don’t worry, we’ve got you covered with our resources below!

HOW MISINFORMATION SPREADS

 

Misinformation is designed to spread very far very quickly via search engines and social media. Here’s how.

One way is by exploiting human psychology. A study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology[http://news.mit.edu/2018/study-twitter-false-news-travels-faster-true-stories-0308] proved that false news travels much faster, farther, and wider than the truth. The interesting thing was that it wasn’t the bots or a few huge accounts that spread it the most. It was a lot of smallish accounts that shared the misinformation to their followers.

This means that our natural human tendencies are being manipulated. Two key aspects that make misinformation oh-so-spreadable by humans like us include:

  • Novelty. We tend to remember and share information that’s new and interesting. So, by making up information that’s more creative than the (boring) truth, misinformation becomes more shareable.

  • Emotional triggers. Posts that conjure up feelings of disgust, fear, and surprise tend to go farther and faster online than the (not-so-strongly-emotional) truth. Emotions like anticipation, sadness, trust, and joy (associated with the truth) simply don’t push those triggers for most people and don’t get spread nearly as much. #PoorJoy

Another way to get misinformation to spread is by using the power of computer algorithms. Have you ever noticed that after you search for, share, or buy something online you start seeing ads for it (or its competitors) everywhere? These computer algorithms are exploited by purveyors of misinformation. 

Let’s talk algorithms for a sec. If we take a step back, it’s easy to see that these online software giants want to keep earning advertising dollars and keep you on their platforms as long as possible, right? They do this in part by using sophisticated computer programs to continuously show us things they think we like. How? By displaying ads and other posts that are similar to what we’ve previously purchased, searched for, shared, or liked (which may mistakenly be misinformation).

Therefore, what you see online is different from what I see. This is because of the exact words we use to search for things, where we’re located, and what we’ve purchased online. Our individual online worlds become smaller and more focused and may eventually stop overlapping with each other. Yes, huge sites like Facebook, Google, Youtube, Pinterest, and Twitter have various misinformation policies and try to uphold them in their own ways. But, by the time misinformation is addressed (if it is at all!), oftentimes thousands and thousands of people have already seen—and believe—the misinformation.

So you can see that with a bit of creativity, it’s easy to make up super-spreadable information that’s new, interesting, and more disgusting, scary, and surprising than the truth. And once you have a few people click through, read, and share it online, it can start going “viral” because of the online algorithms.

WHERE TO FACT CHECK INFORMATION ABOUT THE CORONAVIRUS

 

Luckily, in light of the coronavirus infodemic, a number of trustworthy sites have been created to help you quickly check whether the information you see is factual or not. Here are a few places you can go to verify information about the coronavirus:

USE THIS SIMPLE CHECKLIST TO SPOT KEY “RED FLAGS” OF MISINFORMATION

 

The next time you see a headline or article circulating on the coronavirus or any topic, really, ask yourself these questions. Every “yes” is a red flag to watch out for. The more red flags you spot, the more likely that the post isn’t entirely true:

1 – Is the post a joke or satire? (Maybe it shouldn’t be taken seriously in the first place?)

2 – Is the information surprisingly “too good to be true” (e.g., one simple thing is a miracle cure)?

3 – Is the headline and/or image clickbaity, sensationalized, or controversial? Does it lead people to believe something different from the content of the article?

4 – Does it seem like an infomercial or advertisement? (Maybe it is.)

5 – Does it evoke feelings of disgust, fear, and/or surprise? (These are emotional hot buttons.)

6 – Is the tone irrational and loud? Is it trying to stir up feelings instead of investigation and discourse?

7 – Is the person going out of their way to try to discredit well-accepted health information from multiple credible sources?

8 – Is it making health recommendations for everyone based on personal experiences? (This may be a 100 percent legit personal story; but not necessarily a legit source of health recommendations for everyone to follow.)

9 – Does the article reference credible sites or research papers, or are all the links and citations to its own articles or cherry-picked like-minded blogs?

10 – Does the article claim that new research overturns everything experts know on that topic? Is one single study placed on a pedestal without putting it into context with all of the other research?

  • 0-3 red flags: the post is probably pretty legit

  • 4-7 red flags; the post may be fake or somewhat exaggerated

  • 8-10 red flags; the post is likely a hot mess of pseudoscience

The more red flags you identify, the more reason to not share the post. If you’ve already shared it, consider deleting it and sharing the trustworthy factual information that refutes it. It’s ok to do this because we all make mistakes. What’s important is that we keep learning and moving forward. The research on the coronavirus is coming in fast and furious. There’s a ton of information to sort through and researchers and experts are learning more every single day and putting all of the puzzle pieces together to see the big picture. Everyone’s knowledge is evolving in real-timeincluding ours!

CONCLUSION

It’s more important now than ever to spot coronavirus misinformation—our health depends on it. Misinformation is sometimes accidental and sometimes created on purpose. Use the resources linked above to fact-check your coronavirus information and the 10-question checklist to spot common red flags of misinformation.

If you want to become even more confident in the health information you know and share, feel free to check out these courses on how to do health research online and how to spot fake health news. They go beyond these red flags to address what fake news is, how it spreads, and how to keep and build your credibility with trustworthy research sources in this era of misinformation.

This article was submitted by Leesa Klich, MSc, R.H.N., Health Writer, Blogging Expert, Research Nerd. 

Leesa helps credible health and wellness professionals build their authority and save time with strategically-planned and easy-to-read science-based health articles. Here are some trustworthy and reliable resources[https://leesaklich.com/health-research/reliable-resources/] where you can look up health information.

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