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Overcoming the COVID-19 ‘Infodemic’

  • Published
  • 16 October 2020
  • Category
  • General

COVID-19 has challenged people around the globe to comply with recommendations to help prevent the spread of an infection caused by a coronavirus too small to see.

Now there is another “invisible” threat requiring vigilance – the spread of  misinformation and disinformation about COVID-19.

The difference between the two comes down to intent. People share misinformation because of genuine belief in the content, while disinformation is shared to deliberately mislead.

The communications technology we depend on to stay informed and connected is also capable of influencing our actions. In essence, misleading information and deliberate lies largely disseminated via “news” outlets and social media platforms are undermining global efforts to contain the virus, sowing seeds of doubt about evidence-based protective measures and threatening lives, public health officials say.

This development is referred to as an “infodemic” in a joint statement released last month by the World Health Organization (WHO), United Nations and a host of other international organizations. The statement provides an update on a global initiative launched in April to combat the spread of mis- and disinformation about COVID-19.

This trend is hard to dodge. For example, in a survey of Americans published by Pew Research Center in June, a significant number of respondents reported they had been exposed to conspiracy theories in COVID-related news. Survey results indicate that as the pandemic has progressed during a politically polarized period, so has the release of more partisan viewpoints that make it even more difficult to separate fact from fiction.

Fighting the Infodemic

It sometimes feels as if there is immunity for those who perpetrate the spread of misinformation and disinformation. How can we safeguard ourselves against damaging effects and ensure we aren’t complicit in its circulation?

Recently, media literacy has earned particular pertinence; the idea that we can better control our exposure to unreliable sources. A number of nonprofit and multilateral organizations have begun initiatives to counter the infodemic by encouraging personal responsibility when consuming information. Leaders in this effort include Verified, the UN’s initiative in collaboration with Purpose to deliver fact-based stories, and the News Literacy Project, a non-partisan organization that provides parameters for consumption and other resources.

Adults and children can learn how to be more discerning consumers. It starts with taking time to slow down and pay closer attention. Algorithms that target certain groups based on their preferences, internet bots, and faceless hackers, influence-peddlers and bad actors who can do a lot of damage are prevalent.  Interpreting social context can be especially tricky.

Here are a few recommendations:

  1. Identify the source. Similar to contact tracing, the source of material and how it is distributed plays a vital role in understanding the constellation of its spread.
  2. Ask questions. Is information coming from a commercial, quasi-commercial, governmental, academic or news organization? Who is financing the source? Does the author or organization have a blatant or subtle bias? Is the source anonymous? What is the country of origin?
  3. Consider content. Are authoritative sources and data cited, or does the information seem unsubstantiated? For example, is the information published in a peer-reviewed journal or name multiple subject matter experts, or is it a Tweet or Facebook post without attribution? What types of adjectives and phrases are used to elicit an emotional response?
  4. Be selective. Once you are more aware of sources of information, you can decide what you want to read, listen to and watch. You can also compare one source to another to make informed decisions.
  5. Control sharing. Do not casually forward information that you haven’t thoroughly vetted. Falsehoods have a track record for going viral because they get a strong reaction.

Mike Caulfield, director of Blended and Networked Learning at Washington State University, Vancouver, recommends the SIFT method, aptly named to denote a series of steps to take when navigating web-based and print news:

  • Stop: What are you trying to learn? Consider what you’re seeking.
  • Investigate the source: What is the expertise and agenda of the article? Research your source and fact check the website.
  • Find trusted coverage: Investigate. Search beyond the first few outlets to evaluate consensus on the topic. Look for the best, most-trusted reporting.
  • Trace to the original: Trace claims, quotes and media back to the original source and decide for yourself if the information has been accurately presented.

This approach can also be used when there are measures on the ballot you feel unsure about when voting.

The key takeaway is to act as an investigator. Think critically about media consumption by checking sources, links and timestamps. Consider both the micro and macro context as part of your verification process.

In this way, you will be contributing to efforts to contain the pandemic by following the advice of experts you trust and strengthening your community during this period of prolonged uncertainty.

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