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How to avoid falling for misinformation

We’re all too familiar with enduring a pandemic, but did you know we’re also experiencing an infodemic?

A line of people on phones

By Kathryn Stroppel

We’re all too familiar with enduring a pandemic, but did you know we’re also experiencing an infodemic? 

According to the World Health Organization, an infodemic is “too much information including false or misleading information in digital and physical environments during a disease outbreak. It causes confusion and risk-taking behaviors that can harm health. It also leads to mistrust in health authorities and undermines the public health response.” 

Dean Brian Primack studies the positive and negative effects of social media on health and literally wrote the book on how to use social media for good.

He says, “Although misinformation has been shared since the dawn of time, social media accelerated and broadened its reach, and the pandemic increased its consequences.” 

Thanks to social media, which first popped up at the beginning of the 21st century, misinformation is thriving.

As a case in point, one study showed that misinformation about vaccines gained 4.5 billion online views in one month alone, from March to April 2020.  

With 4.62 billion worldwide, active social media users and 4.95 billion internet users, misinformation quickly reaches nearly every corner of the globe.

And false news, according to a 2018 MIT study, travels faster than true stories. The study found that false stories were 70% more likely to be retweeted, and that true stories take six times as long to reach 1,500 viewers. 

Why is this?  

“Humans are designed to emphasize new information,” Brian says. “False information usually seems ‘newer’ because you’re less likely to have heard it before. Also, people are incentivized to post things they think are new to give them higher status, more followers, more likes and reshares, and a false sense of authority.

“As an example, the most popular Johnson & Johnson vaccine story on Facebook was posted by a conspiracy theorist. In Africa, false rumors that Ebola was spread by the government resulted in the murder of health care workers, and the people who believed the misinformation did little to protect themselves.” 

But social media prophets aren’t the only ones peddling false news. Mainstream media are sometimes complicit as well.  

“Misleading and distorted charts and graphs are everywhere,” Brian says.

“To better gauge their meaning, people should look carefully at the X and Y axes. Do they make sense? How might the graph look if plotted another way? Are you seeing what you think you’re seeing or what the channel you’re watching is telling you you’re seeing? Did you read the fine print?

“Data can be easily manipulated, and numbers can be cherry-picked to reinforce a narrative.” 

In addition to people becoming savvier about how numbers are presented, Brian offers three overarching solutions to combat disinformation: Research on misinformation, leveraging networks to spread true information, and advocating for media literacy. 

“Research into disinformation – why it happens, how and where it’s shared and why – can help us learn more about the issue and how to combat it.

“In addition, public health professionals should be active on social media and support colleagues who are providing science-based information and countering misinformation.

“Finally, media literacy is likely key to combatting misinformation. People need more education on how to interpret scientific studies, process complex information and understand information related to their health,” he says. 

“False information is like a virus, and it preys on our emotions, our weaknesses and what we want to hear, not necessarily what is true.” 

How to stop an infodemic? Question everything.

To become more media literate, be more critical when consuming information.  

Ask:

What is the source of the info? Is it friends or family or a confirmed source? Consider using a fact-checking site such as Snopes, PolitiFact or The Washington Post’s Fact Checker

Where did it come from? What’s the original source of the information and when was it published? Do some research to find out if the source is legitimate, if it has a political bias, when it began, etc. Consider building a list of trusted sources. 

What’s the context? How does this fit within the larger scope of what’s happening? Look at various reputable sources to add context and compare the information with other sources. 

How do I know a video or image is real? Screenshot an image and put it into Google’s image search. Check out this Washington Post resource on spotting fake videos. 

Why am I sharing this? Take a breath and hold off on hitting that like or share button until you can confirm its authenticity.