How to Spot Misinformation About COVID-19

Ever since February, Americans have been seeking reliable information about coronavirus.

We’ve wanted to know what the symptoms are. And whether we should get tested. We’ve wondered if medical personnel could safely handle infected people.

We’ve been interested in learning whether face masks and social distancing really help slow the spread. As well as how many new cases there are in our state. And what percentage of them result in death.

If all the information we gathered were accurate, we’d probably learn enough to keep ourselves healthy.   

Fake News Serves to Confuse

Unfortunately, that’s not the case. There has probably been more false information  about the pandemic – especially on the web – than there has been solid data.

It’s possible fake news has made some of us more cautious than we need to be. At the same time, confusing reports may have provided a false sense of security. Neither has been helpful.

In a moment, I’m going to provide you with five ways to sort out misinformation from the real thing.

In the meantime, let’s take a look at some of the more confusing messaging we’ve heard about the virus. And how social media has helped spread this misinformation.

Are All Face Masks Created Equal?

Over the past seven months, we’ve been given different directions about mask wearing. Including from the same agencies and doctors.

At first we were told it wasn’t necessary to wear a mask. Later they said we should. We also heard only N95 masks are effective. Then we were informed we shouldn’t wear them because medical personnel needed them. And that cloth masks were just fine.

The general consensus now is that masks should be worn by people in public. But some masks are better than others at helping limit the spread.

Michael Mackert is director of the Center for Health Communication at the University of Texas-Austin. He said this. “People tend to find information on the web that conforms with their previous beliefs. And reinforces them.”

Is COVID-19 Airborne?

Does the virus  spread through the air? That’s another question that’s led to disagreement and confusion.

More than 200 scientists appealed to the World Health Organization (WHO) in July to address this idea. But WHO officials replied that more research was required.

Another reason messaging regarding the virus has been so bewildering is this. Not all scientists agree with each other.

Some researchers conducted a study revealing that people need to stay six feet away from each other. Another study showed nine feet is the correct standard.

Does Hydroxychloroquine Fight the Virus?

One of the controversial “treatments” for the virus a few months back was hydroxychloroquine.

President Donald Trump said he took this antimalarial drug for two weeks. He and others said they believed it worked.

But subsequent studies showed it was ineffective against the virus. And that it could be dangerous for some people.

The Food and Drug Administration issued a statement in June warning against its usage to fight the virus.

Social Media Accelerates Misinformation

Complicating the matter is how quickly confusing and inaccurate information spreads. Especially on your Facebook and social media accounts.

Gary Kreps is director for the Center for Health and Risk Communication at George Mason University. Here’s what he says.

“Some social media users are better than others at providing interesting and believable accounts about the pandemic.

“Many people are very concerned about the pandemic. And are eager to get quick answers about how to avoid and respond to the virus. So they may rush to judgment. And accept recommendations that are not helpful, and sometimes dangerous.”

Bad Data Can Be Deadly

This next statistic is as difficult to believe as the fake news we see about the virus. But apparently it’s accurate.

Avaaz is a nonprofit advocacy group. They conducted a study about false information related to the coronavirus.

Their results showed that health misinformation spread by networks on Facebook was viewed 3.8 billion times over the past year.

This number dwarfed the amount of views of health information published by major health groups.

And false information can be deadly. The American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene reported this. Some 800 people globally died in the first three months of 2020 due to misinformation.

5 Tips to Sniff Out False Info

So, how can we tell if information we hear or read about the pandemic is accurate? There’s no easy answer. But here are five tips you could follow.

  • Beware of exaggerated language. Such as “groundbreaking,” “revolutionary” and “breakthrough.” This often applies to “cures.” The more hyped a cure is, the less likely it’s true.
  • Be suspicious of conspiracy theories. Every once in a while an unusual theory will prove accurate. But they’re usually unfounded and exposed as falsehoods.
  • Make sure the information is backed by reputable health organizations. If a group you’ve never heard of suddenly says they have an effective vaccine, be skeptical.
  • Don’t just read the headline. Especially if it seems outlandish. Read the article. Determine whether the facts presented warrant the headline that convinced you to look at it.
  • Watch out for excessive numbers of typos. Legitimate news groups have editors who keep that kind of thing to a minimum.

We now know a lot more about COVID-19 than we used to. By separating misinformation from the real thing, we can learn even more. And hopefully we’ll be able to use that accurate data to stay healthy.

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Sandra Smith - September 11, 2020

Thank you for providing timely info on face masks and the pandemic

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