There is so much false information circulating right now. As someone whose job it is to present credible knowledge for a variety of audiences, I’ve written this in hopes of empowering you to identify misinformation and to help others do the same. I’m using my rarely-used blog as a platform just to get this out into the world.
DISCLAIMER: I am a content strategist and a writer with a master’s degree in communication theory. I have been working in communications and journalism for over a decade. That said, I am not an academician. Here, I am simply pressure testing false information by applying the basic rules that I use for good, credible content creation. Please consider my methods just as you would any guidelines by looking for other sources of information and asking questions.
For this post, I’m looking specifically at two pieces of misinformation that people have sent to me. These are posts circulating on social media and via email. There are many others out there that look similar but may have graphics or exist in video form.
Here is my list of red flags to identify false information:
- No actual source attribution. “A Johns Hopkins immunologist”—doesn’t name the actual source. “Dr. Irene Ken’s daughter is at Johns Hopkins”—still doesn’t name the actual source. A lot of false information is crafted to include mentions of credible sources so that you are more inclined to pay attention.A quick way to weed out false information is to look for the source: If there isn’t one specifically named, it’s probably dubious. And if there is—google that name. Is the person real? Are they actually affiliated with a reputable institution?
- False claims often start out with some sort of “scientific explanation” that sounds plausible but is actually just a load of sciencey-sounding bullshit. “The virus is not a living organism but a protein molecule (DNA)…” While it’s true that viruses are not living things, DNA is not a protein molecule. But those who craft this kind of bogus information know that they can hook a lot of people by SOUNDING sort of…science-adjacent.
- Overgeneralization: The sciencey-sounding bullshit eventually gives way to broad claims that “simplify the science.” Especially when there’s no actual source, these claims are more than likely false. For example: “UV light on any object that may contain it breaks down the virus protein.” Here’s what the science actually says: “Though there hasn’t been any research looking at how UVC affects Covid-19 specifically, studies have shown that it can be used against other coronaviruses, such as Sars. The radiation warps the structure of their genetic material and prevents the viral particles from making more copies of themselves.” (SOURCE: BBC) The sentence overly simplifies the nuances of science.
- Many offer “tips to protect you from the virus” and there are sometimes bits of factual-sounding information woven in. For example, “You have to wash your hands.” Yes, this is true. You should wash your hands. But this is one single fact in a sea of total bullshit. The only entities you should be taking tips from are the CDC, the WHO, and accredited research institutions who name their sources.
- These posts often contain grammar and/or spelling errors. For example: “You have to MOISTURIZE. HAND DRY from so much washing”
- Often there’s an ask at the end, like “Feel free to copy and share!” This friendly invite gets people to post and repost false information.
Keep in mind that even the most educated people you know are spreading misinformation. While many posts are aimed at people who do not have scientific backgrounds, Stanford University found that “Americans of all ages, from digitally savvy tweens to high-IQ academics, fail to ask important questions about content they encounter on a browser, adding to research on our online gullibility.” (Source: TIME)
Finally, why does this false information even exist? There’s often not a clear-cut explanation for why this kind of content is created in the first place. It could be people who want to “watch the world burn” by seeing how far bogus information can spread. Sometimes, there are clear political motives, as we’ve seen in the past. Most often, the original source of this kind of content can’t be found and so we don’t really know the motivations of the original author.
But to the point that none of this is particularly “harmful” if it’s not toting a “cure” like drinking bleach or trying to get you to buy a product or click a dubious link: what’s harmful about this is that it provides false information about an incredibly serious topic during a time when relying on actual facts is a matter of life and death. Sometimes this information contradicts guidelines shared by credible outlets like the CDC which further shakes public trust in those institutions and can inflame panic.
When those same institutions plead with us to take social distancing seriously, we need to be listening with open eyes and ears, not moisturizing our hands so the virus can’t live in the cracks of the skin (totally false).
It’s also important to keep in mind that there is so much we don’t yet know about COVID-19. Researchers are trying to keep pace with a global outbreak and there is not always clear-cut information which is scary. Often, these posts with misinformation are playing to those fears. It is so tempting to share information that seems to give us a sense of agency in the midst of a very unpredictable and terrifying time.
But please pause before sharing posts like these. Ask yourself: what’s the purpose of this post? Am I trying to help others protect themselves? Is this post attempting to answer a question I’ve been asking? And then look for credible sources of information online. I’m happy to help.
Email me your questions and I’ll do my best to direct you to good sources of information: firstname.lastname@example.org
COVID-19 TRUSTED SOURCES:
How long can COVID-19 live on various surfaces?—Johns Hopkins
How to protect yourself from viral illness (including COVID-19)—Harvard University