In the flood of information, it feels nearly impossible to analyze every message in everything from political advertisements and talk shows, to social media and children’s movies.
COVID-19 is not immune to the effects of fast-traveling media. World leaders are calling the rampant spread of misinformation around the virus an infodemic. Researchers at Cornell University found that between 14 and 19 percent of survey respondents both recalled seeing fake news about COVID-19 and believing it.
Erica Weintraub Austin, director of the Murrow Center for Media and Health Promotion Research at Washington State University, says COVID-19 is particularly susceptible to misinformation, the spreading of inaccurate information by mistake, because of the virus’s uniqueness.
“The actual good information is changing every day, and there are a lot of unknowns,” Austin says. “It’s ripe for people to have natural mistrust of what they might be seeing, but also for people to take advantage of that uncertainty.”
Other people engage in disinformation, purposely spreading inaccurate information to manipulate or deceive others.
“Their motives vary,” Austin says. “Some of them may have motives that are based on trying to keep our entire political system unstable, or they’re trying to sell a product.”
Mike Caulfield, the director of Blended and Networked Learning at WSU Vancouver, has a simple guide on his website, infodemic.blog, to analyze messages. It’s called SIFT: Stop; Investigate the source; Find trusted coverage; and Trace claims, quotations, and media to their original context.
“You don’t have to spend 20 minutes trying to figure out if each thing is true or false,” Caulfield says. “With the right skills, it can take as little as 30 seconds to determine what things deserve your attention.”
Porismita Borah, associate professor in the Murrow College, is leading a study on reducing misperceptions about the HPV vaccination and autism, something she started before the COVID-19 outbreak.
“People who reflect or think about the information they see are less likely to be susceptible to misinformation,” Borah says. “They are also more likely to seek additional information and become more educated about the topic.”
When we encounter misinformation, Borah says, whether in person or online, speaking up helps other people realize what they are sharing may not be accurate.
“It takes courage to say, ‘That’s not true,’ but it is really helpful for us to take that step and stop the spread,” Borah says. “We don’t need to look down on someone who is spreading misinformation without realizing it, just give them a gentle reminder that everything they see might not be true.”
Austin says media literacy is critical for navigating misinformation, not only during a pandemic but throughout our lives.
“There’s so much information out there from so many different sources, and we have to figure out shortcuts to sift through it,” Austin says. “A lot of these messages are trying to manipulate your emotions. If it’s making you feel a certain way, then you should stop and think about it.”
WSU is collaborating with the University of Washington’s Center for an Informed Public to tackle misinformation. Both Caulfield and Borah spoke at the center’s virtual event, Surviving the Coronavirus Infodemic, in April.
Caulfield says that even with the best governance and most ethical business practices, individuals still need to do their part—both in preventing the spread of the virus and misinformation.
“Working with UW is valuing the fact that, while a lot of these problems are global, a lot of the solutions are going to have local elements,” Caulfield says. “Everyone has to work together.”