July 14, 2020 – Today, UCS launched a new online resource with tips on how to spot and stop the spread of disinformation around COVID-19. Disinformation (intentionally false or misleading information) is especially dangerous when it happens during a public health crisis. Its spread can undermine the recommendations of public health officials, for example, making people less likely to take science-based precautions that protect their health and diminishing their trust in expert guidance.
This is the first time we are witnessing a fast-spreading, deadly pandemic colliding with a widespread social media landscape that is fueling its own “infodemic.” The World Health Organization has defined the “infodemic” as “an over-abundance of information — some accurate and some not — that makes it hard for people to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance when they need it.” False information has been thriving in this chaotic information environment, which has made it exceedingly difficult for people to make informed decisions about how to keep themselves and their family safe. As Graphika senior research analyst Erin McAweeney wrote recently, “A public too fragmented to collectively trust health experts can’t hold an administration accountable for its lies.”
The viral nature of disinformation is especially pronounced with COVID-19 because, well, it’s a novel coronavirus, and scientists have been working hard to understand how this new virus spreads, how the human body responds, and what the impacts of the disease are. That uncertainty and need for a body of evidence to affirm scientific theories can create data voids, which is a ripe environment for false information to fester and spread. And unfortunately, these data voids are being exploited by sources that spread disinformation to give us a false sense of security, rather than calling for accurate information to fill them. President Trump, for example, has censored scientists, diminished the CDC’s role in leading the pandemic response, and contradicted his own experts at White House briefings.
We need to stop the spread of disinformation to allow clear, accurate information to cut through the noise. But first, we need to know how to spot it. At UCS, we have studied the ways in which the disinformation playbook is used by corporate actors to manipulate the science so that it favors a company’s bottom line. While the motives for misinforming the public are slightly different with COVID-19 versus the harms of tobacco, for instance, the tactics are similar. And the techniques for spotting disinformation, regardless of the source, are the same.
Spotting disinformation: Key questions to ask yourself
Prevention underlies all work in the field of public health. That same maxim should be applied to disinformation as well. It’s much better for all of us if we can stop disinformation in its tracks before it spreads widely, rather than trying to remove and debunk well-known pieces of disinformation that have entered the public consciousness.
To stop disinformation, first we must be armed with the tools to spot it and to employ some healthy skepticism when we encounter new pieces of information. Some important questions to ask yourself when you come across an article, GIF, or argument from your aunt on a phone call:
Does it confirm your beliefs? Social psychology research has found that we are more likely to trust information that confirms our existing beliefs and to more critically evaluate information that seems to contradict them. This confirmation bias contributes to the spread of disinformation and can even result in deepening preexisting beliefs.
Does it trigger an emotional response? Research shows that the more a piece of information elicits an emotional reaction, like fear, disgust, or happiness, the more likely someone is to share it. Manufacturers of disinformation understand this phenomenon and purposely create content that will evoke such responses.
Is it difficult to separate facts from opinions? Sometimes information blurs the line between facts and opinions, presenting biased information as if it were objective. It’s important to check sources and compare with how other reliable sources are covering the issue to verify the facts.
Are there no experts quoted or cited? A big red flag that a piece of information might not be true is that there are no references to reliable sources, or experts are not quoted. To ensure accuracy and credibility, journalists are taught how to back up their stories with evidence, including quotes from expert sources—so when that is missing, it’s an indicator that the information may not be reliable.
Is it difficult to pin down the original source or timestamp? As with the previous question, failure to provide a source or a timestamp makes it harder to verify the origin of a piece of information. When this information is missing, the disinformation source can make more extravagant claims that fall out of line with the factual or scientific evidence— this can twist legitimate information into a more biased narrative that is then more difficult or even impossible to fact-check. With no original source, it is harder to follow up on the information if it is retracted or disappears completely.
Does it seem implausible? If something seems hard to believe, it’s worth fact-checking. False stories are more likely to spread quickly than truths, and research shows that people are more likely to believe a piece of false information, no matter how implausible, if they’ve seen it before—this is termed the “illusory truth effect.”
Does the source have a stake in the claim? The motivation for spreading disinformation is to sow confusion, shape a narrative, and/or financially benefit a person, organization, or company. This is why understanding the source of information matters. Entities sowing disinformation may have something to gain from your belief of and sharing of information, so make sure you investigate the source and understand motivations as you digest it.
If the answer to any of these questions is yes, it is worth further scrutinizing the information and fact-checking against more reliable sources.
The bad news about disinformation? Research has shown it spreads faster than truth. Conspiracies fueled by misinformation can have potent, lasting impacts on individuals’ trust in science, and beliefs rooted in misinformation are often felt strongly. This can mean that simply debunking the claim with facts can actually lead to further validation of the belief.
The good news? Research has shown that, similarly to how vaccines work, inoculating people against disinformation by warning them of the tactics and providing alternative, accurate information can work to reduce the likelihood of disinformation taking hold. The first line of defense against disinformation about COVID-19 is recognizing it. Next, you can help stop its spread by sharing information from reliable sources, like public health experts, and trying out ‘prebunking’ of disinformation in your networks. You can also help hold your local, state, and federal governments accountable by asking probing questions about the information they’re using to back up their actions and the experts they’re consulting to make decisions about how to respond to COVID-19.
Genna Reed is Lead Science and Policy Analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists.