Updated: Apr 30, 2020
How Misinformation Could Kill During the Coronavirus Pandemic
Guest post by Rae Barry
Masters student in communication, MSU
You read a post on Facebook that a runny nose is indicative of a common cold, not COVID-19. You think to yourself “wow, I didn’t know that” or maybe even “that’s what I’ve been thinking all along!” Hitting the “share” button takes half a second, and maybe you never think about this incident again. However, one of your 600 friends on Facebook (maybe even one of the ones you don’t really know, you just accepted his friend request because of how many mutual friends you have from college) reads the post you shared. He’s been dealing with a runny nose all week and was starting to worry, but oh it’s just a cold – no need to stress. He goes to the store seeing that the “do not enter if sick” sign doesn’t really apply to him. Later, he even decides to go for a walk with a friend and their dogs (six feet apart of course, well except for that one second when he had to hold the leash so his friend could pick up the dog poop – just trying to be considerate of others, right?). It’s just a Facebook post after all, what harm could one share really do?
That’s what 300,000 other people thought too when they shared an erroneous Facebook post that claimed a runny nose meant you had a cold, not COVID-19. Though a runny nose is a less common symptom of the novel disease, it does not rule out the possibility that you are infected with the virus, and therefore can be passing the virus onto others you come into close contact with. With total cases in Michigan continuing to rise, hitting 37,778 on Sunday, emotions of those told to continue sheltering place run even higher. Increased anxiety and panic across the state has led to an influx in the circulation of mis- and disinformation. The danger in spreading false information during a time like this cannot be understated. World Health Organization (WHO) Director General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus went as far as to claim, “We’re not just fighting an epidemic; we’re fighting an infodemic.” It is more important than ever for the public to be careful consumers of information. The information-equivalent of social distancing, this preventative step can help staunch the spread of misinformation and save human lives. A distinction of intent There is an often-overlooked distinction between misinformation and disinformation. According to political scientists Shanto Iyengar and Douglas Massey, disinformation is the spreading of false information with the intent to deceive recipients. Misinformation, on the other hand, is the inadvertent circulation of incorrect or misleading information. This is relevant when considering intent. While both are spreading throughout the country at this very moment, it is the participation in spreading misinformation that the public must guard themselves against. Although some “news” and information sites have taken this tumultuous time as an opportunity to spread confusion purposefully, most of the false information being spread is being done so accidentally without malintent. With millions of people quarantined at home with plenty of time to surf the web, the unintentional spreading and consumption of false news has become a daily activity for many. This is made easier through social media such as Facebook and Twitter. Cases of misinformation on the rise From premature quarantine rumors to government conspiracies, misinformation about coronavirus has permeated the public psyche in Michigan. A people who have weathered events such as the Flint water crisis, citizens of Michigan have had practice dealing with large-scale uncertainty. Misinformation campaigns during that tumultuous time left inhabitants of the mitten states suspicious of government assurances and sometimes even distrusting of scientific advice. Similar distrust has spread over the past several weeks. That’s unsurprising according to University of Washington Professor Kate Starbird, an expert in crisis informatics and online rumors. She claims that misinformation often spreads during times of uncertainty. Starbird tweeted “Crisis events, as they unfold, are often characterized by high uncertainty — about what is happening and what we should do about it, individually and collectively. In these cases, the “facts” of the situation are dynamic, and there are still unknowns.” She goes on to claim that this uncertainty feeds anxiety and affects the ways in which people seek and share information. Without a single source of truth shouting out over the noise, these information seekers can get lost in the rumors.
Speaking of source, where is the misinformation coming from? Not from Governor Whitmer, that’s for sure. Michigan’s governor was quick to respond to the threat of the virus and ranked number five on Politico’s Coronavirus vs. Governors: Best State Leaders list. She has even taken to social media to try and combat the misinformation from spreading. Perhaps it is the discord between state and federal political voices that is leaving room for misinformation to fester. According to a study on rumors and truth seeking by researchers Claire Konkes and Libby Lester, “Conspiracy theories can be described as explanations that emerge in response to unsatisfactory official explanation.” President Donald Trump, who has Twitter-happy thumbs, has been critical of “that woman from Michigan.” President Trump’s own coronavirus response was lackluster at best, if not downright deceptive during its early stages. He claimed on Jan. 22, “We have it totally under control. It’s one person coming in from China. We have it under control. It’s going to be just fine.” By Mar. 17 his tune had changed, “This is a pandemic… I felt it was a pandemic long before it was called a pandemic.” This puts journalists in a tricky spot. Reporting on what the President says has historically been newsworthy, but we may be in unmarked territory where journalists must triage the situation and decide what is safe, or dangerous, to report back to the public. When the President himself is spreading misinformation, how is the public supposed to find the truth in a noisy sea of lies? The problem is exacerbated by the lack of gatekeepers in the modern media structure. George Washington University Professor Silvio Waisbord, past editor-in-chief of the Journal of Communication and International Journal of Press/Politics, explained “The collapse of news gatekeeping opens the floodgates to information and misinformation, truth and lies, scientific and unscientific knowledge, facts and fiction. Social media platforms and search companies provide plenty of space for epistemologies with varying relations with reality.” Information distributors need to be held accountable during this time of national crisis to take responsibility when it comes to inaccurate information spreading on their platforms, regardless of the source. A vaccine for misinformation To combat the spread of inaccuracy, expert information has started to come from unlikely sources. Barstool Sports’ podcast “Pardon My Take” is the number one sports podcast on iTunes and, as one would expect, traditionally centers on sports conversations. Last month, however, the hosts brought on Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, to get some answers about what this country is really dealing with. Dr. Fauci sounded calm and credible as he explained what the public should and should not be doing. He dissected rumors about the virus going away in the summer saying, “We cannot be sure that that is going to happen when we experience the full brunt of this virus. It might happen, but we don’t know for sure.” Not only was this information from a credible source, but it also was shared using a platform that reaches a demographic who is most likely to get their news from social media. Having a sure voice of reason cut through the misinformation is critical during these uncertain times. Psychologist Stephan Lewandowsky and his team developed some strategies the public can use to help identify misinformation. These strategies are the handwashing of information that can help prevent infectious news from spreading any further. (1) Analyze information even if it “feels right.” This first step attests to the human tendency to have confirmation bias, where individuals believe information that aligns with their preconceived notions.
(2) Process information regardless of coherency. People are more likely to process information easily when its written in an easy-to-read way. Don’t fall for this trap! Entire websites are devoted to disinformation, and they may come across as professional looking as a CDC article.
(3) Check the source. This is a no-brainer. Check the source of your information, and process if you trust that source or not. Did an expert provide data? Did they explain the process by which they gained this evidence? Consider these questions before believing everything you read.
(4) Be wary of the consensus. Just because a bunch of people on your timeline believe something, doesn’t make it true. Increased frequency of exposure to a message increases how likely one is to believe it to be true, regardless of accuracy. Typically, we do not have enough brain power to process every bit of information we come across on a deep level, but with the entire country shutting down it is more important than ever to be critical in our information seeking habits. As Dr. Mike Ryan, head of WHO’s health emergencies program said, “We need a vaccine against misinformation.” Take a minute and process before you share – it could save a life.