About a week ago, a friend sent us a post from Stanford University about how to self-diagnose the coronavirus and kill it once it enters the body. The diagnosis included holding your breath for at least 10 seconds to test your lung capacity and urged frequent drinking of water to drive the virus into the stomach where it would be killed.
A short time later, the post, by now widely circulated, was disavowed by Stanford. The advice was bogus. The post came just days after I received an email from a prestigious scientist with advice from an infectious disease doctor, who urged stocking up on zinc lozenges to boost the immune system.
The next day, the scientist profusely apologized “for the misinformation campaign I inadvertently advanced.” There is no definitive evidence that zinc lozenges, including the specific brand touted by the alleged doctor, have a salutary benefit.
If we are now truly at war, we must be ready to fight on two fronts. We need to contain the biological virus, but also an information virus that’s traveling even faster, carrying with it misguided messages, conspiracy theories, rumors, and magical remedies that can sow confusion and undermine everyone’s safety.
“We’re not just fighting an epidemic, we’re fighting an infodemic,” Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the World Health Organization’s director general, said at a European security conference in February.
The good news is that, unlike for COVID-19, we already have a vaccine to protect us against the infodemic, a series of tools to help filter fact from fiction, and reliable information from misleading and dangerous falsehood.
We’ve been testing the tools for more than a decade at Stony Brook University’s Center for News Literacy, where more than 11,000 students have completed the center’s course in news literacy, which is now being taught at dozens of other universities and in 15 countries, and for the first time, to every student in the Plainview-Old Bethpage school district, beginning in the seventh grade.
Here are some things we’ve learned that might help you to navigate the COVID-19 information tsunami.
SLOW DOWN. We can’t slow down the rush of news, but we can slow down how we make decisions. Ask yourself some simple questions: Who is giving me this information? What is the evidence? What don’t I know? What do other news sources say?
Read past the headlines. One study by Columbia University and the French National Institute found that nearly 60 percent of users share links to news stories online without even having read the story. A more recent study by Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy found that even a little time for reflection helps identify bogus news headlines.
Finally, don’t confuse the sender of the information with the source of the information. Studies on social media have shown that who shares a story matters more to users than where the story comes from, or the news source. So if you get a story from a trusted friend or relative, don’t assume it’s reliable.
Remember, too, that a platform, for example either Facebook or Twitter, is not a news source. It is a conduit for news and information from thousands of different sources, both the reliable and the unreliable.
FOLLOW THE NEWS. News developments can change rapidly. Act on the latest available information. For days last week there were contradictory reports about whether ibuprofen can worsen coronavirus symptoms and weaken the immune system. The WHO, which first cautioned against taking the drug, said there is no evidence yet to support the claim.
DON'T OUTSOURCE YOUR JUDGMENT. Don’t rely on algorithms, search engine results, number of tweets, or “what’s trending” to substitute for your own judgment. All those indicators measure engagement or popularity, not reliability.
For years, one of the most frequently searched sites on Google about the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was MartinLutherKing.org, a site run by Stormfront, a white supremacist organization. Many users were fooled because they wrongly assumed that dot-org meant that the site was run by a responsible nonprofit. Anyone can apply to be a dot-com or a dot-org. Only a few URLs are restricted, including dot-edu for educational institutions and dot gov. for all legitimate U.S. government sites.
WATCH YOUR EMOTIONS. Along with speed, emotion can be a major barrier to identifying reliable information, especially when we understandably want to find reassuring news, potential cures, advice to help us get control of what appears to be an uncontrollable situation, or scapegoats to blame.
This is only exacerbated during periods of anxiety or panic. Claire Wardle, the co-founder and executive director of First Draft, a nonprofit dedicated to studying misinformation, notes that the “more emotional your response the less likely it is to be accurate.” So many of us want to believe what we want to believe. (No one is immune, which explains why I quickly searched for those zinc lozenges last week before I caught the error.)
PRACTICE DIGITAL HYGIENE. Don’t share until you verify. Spreading misinformation, no matter how well-intentioned, only gives oxygen to the fast-moving infodemic. Your one click can have far-reaching consequences. A recent study by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that inaccurate tweets travel six times faster than tweets that are accurate.
So, before we either share or act on what we read or watch, let’s employ the government’s hand-washing strategy. Let’s scrub the information for at least 20 seconds, ask key questions, interrogate the information by verifying it elsewhere, stop relying on the judgment of technology or our friends, and be careful of our emotions.
And there is some reassuring news amid all the bleak headlines: We might not yet be in control of the pandemic, but we can control the infodemic.
Howard Schneider is the executive director of Stony Brook University’s Center for News Literacy and a former editor of Newsday. For more information and tips on how you can become a more discerning news consumer in the age of coronavirus, go to CenterforNewsLiteracy.org.