It is not surprising that with the COVID-19 pandemic, there are those who are attempting to use this crisis to spread misinformation, “phish” for personal information to rip people off and push conspiracy theories about all sorts of dark motives for the virus taking hold across the globe.
One of the reasons we created the Institute for Media and Public Trust at Fresno State was to develop strategies to combat fake news and misinformation. We are advising news consumers to assess information they are getting about the coronavirus the same way we want them to evaluate other news content: Be skeptical and check out information from multiple sources before you dare pass it along on your social media sites.
Some misinformation is not only false, it can be dangerous. Consider all the phony “home remedies” being pushed on the Internet. They should not be used in place of medical advice and CDC guidance. Unfortunately, you see “friends” on social media swearing by these remedies.
And, of course, you can’t rely on Facebook to police misinformation, despite its claims to be vigilant against deceptive content. Check out this Consumer Reports “experiment” in which phony coronavirus ads were proposed for Facebook, and the social media site approved every one of them. This was content that Facebook executives previously said they wouldn’t post. The phony ads were pulled back by Consumer Reports before they were ever published. But the experiment proved that Facebook would take the ads and the money without questioning the veracity of the content.
While Facebook is not very credible on these issues, the site reaches 2.5 billion people internationally. Facebook users must call out the site for its unwillingness to follow its publicly stated policies. It is too big to ignore.
The conspiracy theories about the pandemic are also very dangerous, and range from those who think COVID-19 is a hoax to those who think it was caused by the 5G network. Actor Woody Harrelson is among those who think 5G is the cause. Please don’t get your medical advice from an actor. Then there are others who believe they have the “real story” based only on Googling content about the virus. Their knowledge somehow is more reliable than most of the world’s scientists and medical experts.
As we sift through COVID-19 misinformation, we must be smart consumers, and use strategies that can help us. Don’t throw up your hands and say you don’t know who to believe. Use your critical thinking skills.
There are several fact-checking sites devoted specifically to COVID-19 claims. Here is Poynter and MediaWise looking into the compound hydroxychloroquine, and whether it has promise in the campaign against coronavirus. FactCheck.org has a guide to coronavirus coverage. You can access it here. Snopes.com has been overwhelmed by questions about the coronavirus, according to this story in Business Insider.
Fresno State’s Media Institute is also here to help you sort through the media clutter — on the coronavirus issue and other issues as they arise.
We stated earlier that news consumers should be skeptical about content that is coming from sources that we can’t verify elsewhere. Another way of putting it is to have a good BS detector.
Here are some other tips on identifying fake content. These are many of the same tips we use for identifying false news circulating on social media sites.
- Look past your personal biases. This is crucial in sorting out content. We often believe the worst about people or politicians we despise. Those biases can blind us to what we are sharing on social media, even if there are red flags that suggest the stories may not be factual.
2. Do you recognize the source of the item? Be skeptical if it comes from a source that you’ve never heard of. That doesn’t mean it’s false, and it could come from an obscure but legitimate news outlet. But take extra time to confirm the facts on sites you may not recognize.
3. Use search engines to see if anyone else is reporting this particular story. If it is as big a story as being promoted in the headline or share text on a social media site, surely other news outlets will have a version of the story at some point.
4. Check the link in your browser. Many fake news sites try to mimic actual news sites. The link might have a slight variation from the legitimate news site. If the link looks odd, that’s another red flag.
5. Look at other stories on the website. Does the content pass the “smell test?” Check out the writing style. Do the stories on the site have excessive capital letters, exclamation points, obvious grammatical errors, or other oddities that suggest the content may not be reliable?
6. Read the “Contact Us” and “About Us” links. Are they working, and do they give information that is helpful? Can you email the story’s author?
7. Go to fact-checking sites. Use them to see what they say about the news story before you post it on social media. Try factcheck.org, snopes.com, politifact.com, or other fact-checking sites. And if you have questions about the quality of a particular fact-checking site, use multiple fact-checking sites to verify the information.
8. Be skeptical. It will help make you a smart news consumer.
Please don’t fall victim to misinformation and distorted content about COVID-19. You owe it to yourself and your families.
This post was updated on April 9, 2020.