- Misinformation has always existed on the internet, but with COVID-19, the risks can be greater.
- Experts are encouraging people to confront misinformation with credible links and sources.
- Dispelling misinformation means also knowing where to look for correct information. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is a good place to start.
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During the COVID-19 outbreak, the internet has been a reliable — and for some of us the only — way to connect with others and stay informed.
However, it’s also the way most misinformation about the pandemic has been, and continues to be, spread.
The use of the internet, and particularly social media, to spread misinformation is nothing new and often people aren’t aware they’re sharing inaccurate information when they do so.
But regardless of intentions, misinformation about COVID-19 can have deadly consequences.
So, when you encounter misinformation being spread by someone in your social media feed, what’s the best way to deal with it?
Healthline spoke with experts who helped shed some light on the reasons why people share misinformation online and how you can approach countering it if you decide it’s something you feel moved to do.
While some of the world’s top epidemiologists and data scientists have spent the last several months warning of the dangers of COVID-19, there are still those denouncing their claims.
Some naysayers have called COVID-19 a hoax, others have said it’s not as deadly as has been reported, and others still have made entire documentaries full of false claims and inaccurate data in an attempt to point the finger at world leaders for creating the disease on purpose.
These claims were quickly debunked, but countless people still share their videos and theories without checking the accuracy of their claims.
Reasonable, intelligent, generally responsible people have gotten so caught up in the quest for answers that they’ve been willing to pass along anything that might satiate that need.
“I think there are two things driving misinformation, one is more nefarious than the other,” said Dr. Leann Poston, MBA, MEd, medical content expert at Invigor Medical. “There are groups of people who are using the fear of COVID and the stress everyone is under to drive their own agenda.”
She said these groups include those who are against vaccines, those who fear the government, and even those who believe 5G is the cause of COVID-19.
“Getting paid on sites such as YouTube, based on views, makes this a money-maker they cannot resist,” Poston, who’s part of a working group focused on combating online misinformation about COVID-19, explained.
But she said there’s also another less devious group behind the spread of misinformation.
These are the people “who are choosing to believe misinformation because it decreases their stress and makes it easier for them to cope with the general feeling of unease that is present right now.”
For those people, the misinformation is more comforting than the truth, and certainly more digestible than all the information we still don’t know.
The problem is that medical misinformation is far from harmless. And experts say with COVID-19, especially, that misinformation seems to be gaining a stronger foothold than anyone should be comfortable with.
“It is easier for misinformation to spread because COVID-19 is a new virus we are still trying to understand,” explained Dr. Thomas Cornwell, the executive chairman of Home Centered Care Institute and the senior medical director of Village Medical at Home.
“Information can be shared persuasively and sensationally in a way that sounds believable,” he said.
Social media becomes a gateway for the spread of that misinformation.
You may be one of the many social media users who have chosen not to engage with their friends and family as they share misinformation about hot-button issues — particularly when it comes to politics — deciding that it’s better to not ruffle feathers.
However, experts say the same stance shouldn’t necessarily be taken when you encounter inaccurate information about COVID-19.
Even Forbes recently published an article urging readers to actively debunk the misinformation being shared about COVID-19 in their feeds.
“Responding with correct information is a service to all,” said Poston. “One, it does not give the writers the attention and financial incentive to spread misinformation and two, it saves time for everyone if they do not have to research it themselves.”
One of the reasons people have shied away from sharing correct information on posts with misinformation in the past has likely been out of respect for their relationships with others.
It can be embarrassing to be called out for sharing false information, and no one wants to create an uncomfortable situation that may affect a friendship.
So instead, people tend to just look away — or even hide friends and family members who are frequent offenders — rather than sharing links to reputable sources.
But allowing misinformation to spread could create a false sense of security regarding the disease. And that false sense of security has the potential to lead to more cases, overwhelming our healthcare system and costing more lives.
This isn’t about disagreeing politically. It’s about ensuring false medical information doesn’t have the chance to spread.
But that doesn’t mean you have to confront misinformation in a way that ruins your relationships. Poston said there are ways to share correct information respectfully.
“I would consider whether they are wanting to believe the information to further an agenda or whether they want to believe it to calm themselves down or to decrease stress,” Poston said. “If it is the first, I would try to provide links to correct information to help stop the spread of misinformation.”
In this way, you may be able to prevent other people reading the thread from buying into the misinformation that’s being shared.
“If it is the second, I would ask questions instead. I would try to determine why they want to believe the information they are hearing. What is their motivation and what will they get out of it? Then try to provide the reassurance they are seeking using the more factually correct information,” Poston continued.
When you understand where your friends and family are coming from with the misinformation they’re sharing, you may be able to better figure out how to reach them without hurting feelings.
Of course, providing factually correct information means first knowing where to look for that information yourself.
“The best way to vet the information is to search for the uploader or writer to see what their motivation might be to post or write the article,” Poston said. “Many of the misinformation campaigns are getting pretty well identified and described online which makes it much easier.”
In other words, before you share anything yourself, it’s a good idea to look up the person responsible for initially sharing that information and see if anyone has already debunked what they’re saying.
The next step is knowing where to look for the most up to date, accurate information so that you can provide factually correct resources.
When you respond to misinformation that’s being shared, it’s important you have credible links to back up what you’re saying.
Also, approaching the situation gently can help avoid the potential for bruised feelings.
Instead of simply pointing out that the person isn’t sharing accurate information, a better approach could look something like this: “I understand the desire to believe what’s being said here, but this person has already been debunked pretty heavily and called out for manipulating the facts and data. Here’s a link detailing everything that’s wrong with this video. I hope you’ll read it.”
Of course, you can’t force your friend or family member to do so, but hopefully by approaching them gently and with understanding, you’ll at least be able to convince them to consider what you’re sharing.
And even if you can’t help them directly, you might be able to save one of their friends or family members from making the mistake of buying into it and sharing the same misinformation they have.