Impact Series

Consultants share recommendations on the way to staunch the coronavirus misinformation ‘infodemic’

Kate Starbird, a University of Washington associate professor, talks with Hanson Hosein, co-director of the UW’s Communication Leadership program during Thursday’s live streamed summit titled “Surviving the Coronavirus Infodemic.”

As we’re wading through the flood of information about the novel coronavirus, it’s difficult for even the most skeptical among us to sniff out truth from fiction 100% of the time.

I was duped last month by the story of dolphins returning to the canals of Venice, which was texted to me by someone trustworthy who found the story through London’s Evening Standard. It took the tabloid five days to realize it had been tricked by tweeted images of dolphins and swans erroneously labeled as taken in Venice. National Geographic debunked the UK-posted story within 48 hours.

The tweets that originally fueled the myth of resurrected nature in Italian waterways are still on Twitter with no apparent indication that they’re fiction.

Luckily, the deception here is a largely benign, feelgood story. That isn’t always the case in a health emergency.

When in comes to misinformation in the time of coronavirus, “the stakes are very high,” said Mike Caulfield, a digital literacy expert with Washington State University in Vancouver, Wash. “The difference between having the right information and wrong information can be the difference between life and death on an immense scale.”

Caulfield shared his thoughts on a live streamed summit Thursday titled “Surviving the Corornavirus Infodemic” that tackled the rampant spread of misinformation and featured researchers from WSU and the University of Washington.

The WHO in February declared an “infodemic” as the public has struggled to make sense of an overwhelming amount of information about the health crisis. Disasters are often prime conditions for misinformation, researchers say, but the pandemic is even worse.

Jevin West, at UW associate professor and inaugural director of the Center for an Informed Public, joined the summit from his home.

“During a disaster event, often things are uncertain,” said Kate Starbird, an associate professor in the UW’s Department of Human Centered Design & Engineering, during Thursday’s event. “And in that uncertainty, we feel anxiety about what should we do, what actions should we take and we want to resolve that uncertainty and anxiety.”

So people start gathering and sharing information to try to make sense of what’s happening. In a disaster like an earthquake, there’s a catastrophic event, the dust literally settles and concrete details can start to emerge. In coronavirus, the uncertainty isn’t resolving.

Coronavirus Live Updates: The latest COVID-19 developments in Seattle and the world of tech

Key information about access to testing, the number of infected and dying people, and data about how the disease spreads is shifting and evolving and sometimes contradictory. In an era where information moves at a breakneck speed, the public is consuming research and advice that’s not yet complete.

“Science is not comfortable in the fast lane. It’s much more comfortable in the multi-year, multi-decade lane and it’s being asked to give answers in 10 days rather than 10 years,” said Jevin West, a UW associate professor and inaugural director of the Center for an Informed Public (CIP).

So what’s a fearful society to do? The researchers shared their recommendations:

  • Slow down. Particularly when you have an emotional response to information, take a minute to reflect and consider its veracity. (Feeling happy about dolphins perhaps should have been my red flag.)
  • Check the original source of the information, vetting commentators and outlets for reputation and affiliations. Caulfield recommends doing a search for the Wikipedia page using the URL of a source.
  • Cross check information with multiple sources.
  • Respectfully correct misinformation, including friends, family and colleagues who passed it along.
  • If you’re repeatedly misled, consider shifting your media diet to more reliable sources.

Public polls about the traditional media’s response to coronavirus generally follow established trends that align with political affiliations and preferred news sources.

The majority of people who get most of their news from social media say they’ve seen coronavirus information that appears made up, while roughly one-third of those who get their news from print sources say the same, according to a recent Pew Research Center poll. In another Pew survey, 79% of Fox News viewers say the media has exaggerated coronavirus risks, while 35% percent of MSNBC viewers say that’s true.

Viewers posted questions for the expert panel by using the crowdsourcing survey tool from British Columbia-based startup Thoughtexchange.

In a survey from Gallup, most Americans believe that hospitals and state governments have responded well to coronavirus, regardless of party affiliation. And while 61% of Democrats approve of the media’s response to the pandemic, only 25% of Republicans do.

Twitter and Facebook are taking some steps to curb the flow of misinformation on their platforms, including sharing banner ads that refer people to trusted news sources. Preliminary research from the UW, however, suggests that it’s more effective when social media sites label specific posts as false.

The researchers Thursday urged the public to be vigilant in policing misinformation in their lives and social circles.

“The biological virus has done enough damage,” West said. “The thing that concerns me most about this infodemic is the that we don’t need anymore damage… let’s do what we can to reduce the damage that can come from information viruses.”

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