Coronavirus Misinformation: How You Can Fight Back

Turn yourself into a source of coronavirus facts and a bulwark against the fake, misleading and fraudulent.

(© Charles Taylor/Adobe)


When it comes to fighting the new coronavirus threat, the truth is one of the few things more crucial than a gallon of hand sanitizer. But these days, both can be hard to find if you don't know where to look.

"Humans are wired to respond to emotional triggers and share misinformation if it reinforces existing beliefs and prejudices."

While it's only been around for a few months, COVID-19 has already produced an ever-expanding universe of conspiracy theories about its origins, its spread, and the danger it poses. Meanwhile, fraudulent cures and myths about treatments threaten to upend public health efforts to contain the epidemic.

But ordinary citizens aren't helpless. Research offers insight into why we're susceptible to misinformation, and armies of fact-checkers can tell us what's real and what isn't. Meanwhile, experts are offering tips about how we can effectively promote facts whether we're chatting with a stranger at the post office or challenging a cousin on Facebook.

Here a four-part strategy to help you fight back against the Coronavirus Misinformation Industrial Complex:

Understand How Bogus Beliefs Work

That crank on the Internet may be your neighbor. Or maybe even you.

According to a 2014 study published in JAMA Internal Medicine, nearly half of American surveyed said they believed in at least one grand medical conspiracy theory. Twenty percent agreed, for example, that cell phones cause cancer but officials won't do anything because of corporate pressure, and 37 percent believed an elaborate conspiracy theory about the suppression of natural cancer cures. "Although it is common to disparage adherents of conspiracy theories as a delusional fringe of paranoid cranks, our data suggest that medical conspiracy theories are widely known, broadly endorsed, and highly predictive of many common health behaviors," the study authors write.

In an interview with leapsmag, study lead author Eric Oliver said we're drawn to "conspiracy theories that correspond with our intuitions."

"In the case of medicine, I think there are three big factors: Fears of Big Pharma -- a large percentage of Americans have a distorted sense of what pharmaceutical companies are capable of -- fears of government, and fears of contagion," said Oliver, a political scientist at the University of Chicago.

Why does it matter if people believe in conspiracy theories about coronavirus? As Oliver's study notes, conspiracy theorists are less likely to rely on traditional medicine, get flu shots, or go to annual check-ups. They could be especially susceptible to disease and inappropriate treatment.

Joseph Uscinski, a professor of political science at the University of Miami who studies conspiracies, elaborated on how this works. "You could have people who think coronavirus is fake and say, 'I'm not going to wash my hand or take preventive action. This is the media making something up, or this is just a plot for the pharmaceutical companies to sell a vaccine.' If you have a lot of people acting that way, that increases the ability of the virus to spread."

Get the Facts from the Experts

How can you avoid being a misinformation source? Educate yourself to make sure you're not spouting fake facts yourself with the instant ease that the Internet allows. "Humans are wired to respond to emotional triggers and share misinformation if it reinforces existing beliefs and prejudices," writes misinformation scholar Claire Wardle in a 2019 Scientific American commentary. That means you too.

For coronavirus facts, experts recommend looking to the websites of government agencies (such as the CDC, World Health Organization and National Institutes of Health) and top-tier medical organizations (Mayo Clinic, Infectious Disease Society of America).

Respected mainstream news outlets such as The New York Times and National Public Radio offer extensive original reporting on the coronavirus threat. While some news outlets still require users to pay to get full access to stories, others have dropped their paywalls and made coronavirus content free to all. These include the Seattle Times, Bloomberg News and the medical news site Stat.

Locally, look to your region's public health department, news outlets, and medical organizations such as hospitals and health plans.

The Poynter Institute, a journalism watchdog outfit, offers a helpful guide to evaluating what you read about coronavirus. And a paid service called NewsGuard offers a browser plug-in that provides a "trust rating" for popular news sites. "Our goal is to teach news literacy–and we hope all websites will earn green ratings and be generally reliable to consumers," the NewsGuard site says.

"As we combat misinformation, we also need to be mindful of the fact that we're dealing with a lot of uncertainty."

Remember, however, that scientists and physicians are learning more about the coronavirus each day. Assumptions about the virus will change as more information comes in, and there are still many questions about crucial topics like its fatality rate and the ways the virus spreads. You should expect that reliable sources – and experts – may provide conflicting information.

"As we combat misinformation, we also need to be mindful of the fact that we're dealing with a lot of uncertainty," says Boston cardiologist and author Dr. Haider Warraich of Brigham and Women's Hospital.

Double-Check Suspicious Information

No, the coronavirus wasn't created in a Winnipeg laboratory. You can't kill it by drinking bleach or frolicking in snow. And, as the French Health Ministry helpfully advised on Twitter, "Non, La cocaïne NE protège PAS contre le #COVID19" – "No, cocaine does NOT prevent Covid-19."

Facebook, YouTube and Twitter are all trying to remove fake or misleading coronavirus content, The New York Times reported, and "all said they were making efforts to point people back to reliable sources of medical information." Still, as the Times reports, bogus cures and conspiracy theories are rampant across social media and beyond.

Fortunately, there are many fact-checking resources. Turn to them for ammunition before you amplify – or challenge -- a coronavirus claim that seems suspicious.

Helpful myth-busting resources include:

** The venerable fact-checking site Snopes.com, which has checked multiple coronavirus claims. (Example: No, garlic water won't cure coronavirus.)

** The World Health Organization. (Example: No, mosquito bites can't transmit coronavirus)

** FactCheck.org. (Example: No, a disgraced Harvard scientist wasn't arrested for creating the coronavirus.)

** PolitiFact.org. (Example: No, the coronavirus is not just "the common cold.")

** The International Fact-Checking Network, accessible via the social-media hashtags #CoronaVirusFacts and #DatosCoronaVirus.

Correct Others With Caution

On social media, anger and sarcasm make up a kind of common tongue. But sick burns won't force misinformed people see the light. Instead, try a gentler approach.

"The most important thing would be to first acknowledge their anxieties rather than first trying to rationalize away their misbeliefs," said the University of Chicago's Oliver. "People embrace misinformation and conspiracy theories because they are afraid and trying to make sense of the world. Their beliefs serve a strong emotional function and will be defended as such. Trying to rationalize with them or argue with them may be counterproductive if one can't first put them at some ease."

Turn yourself into a source of coronavirus facts and a bulwark against the fake, misleading, and fraudulent.

So what can you do? "There will never be a magic bullet," the University of Miami's Uscinski said, but one approach is to highlight reliable information from sources that the person trusts, such as news outlets (think MSNBC or Fox News) or politicians.

However, don't waste your time. "If you have people who are believing in the craziest thing, they're probably not going to offer a rational conversation," he said. And, he added, there's an alternative to correcting others: Turn yourself into a source of coronavirus facts and a bulwark against the fake, misleading, and fraudulent. "We can be preventive and inoculate people against these beliefs," he said, "by flooding the information environment with proper information as much as possible."

Randy Dotinga
Randy Dotinga is former president of the American Society of Journalists and Authors, a non-profit association of freelance writers and non-fiction authors. He has been a freelance writer since 1999 and specializes in health/medicine, politics, books, and the odd and unusual. You can follow him at @rdotinga.
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