Fighting the coronavirus ‘infodemic’

This week, the science blog Science Alert published a piece entitled “5 Ways You Can Help Stop The Coronavirus’ Infodemic’ That’s Hurting Everyone.” We’ll get to the five recommendations in a bit, but first I’d like to set the stage.

We’ve talked before in this space about the problem of false information permeating social media as well as traditional media outlets.

Fake news” appearing anywhere is bad for society and bad for our democracy, but in the case of a national health emergency, we are now talking about life and death. This is serious.

Have you heard the one about how eating garlic stops COVID-19 in its tracks? Or how 5G cell towers are causing the illness? Maybe you’ve heard the whopper about how a vaccine being developed by none other than Microsoft founder Bill Gates will contain a microchip to track your every move.

In case you were wondering, all of those are entirely made up. There isn’t even a kernel of truth to any of them.

Then there are the ones that are exaggerations or misrepresentations of factual information.

The details of the origin of the novel coronavirus are shrouded in mystery. However, most experts think the virus originated in wild animals — probably bats — and the first human case occurred somewhere in China. That’s virtually all we know with any degree of certainty.

But that hasn’t stopped the conspiracy machine from churning out “secret” information about the origins of the virus. That it was created in a virology lab in Wuhan. That it was released intentionally by the Chinese government, either for their own purposes or at the behest of Americans opposed to the Trump administration.

There is not a shred of evidence for any of those claims.

By integrating a few facts with exaggerated or made-up claims, the conspiracy mongers have been able to supply fodder not only for “Joe Sixpack” but also for people who should know better. People like Sen. Tom Cotton, (R‑Arkansas) and even President Donald Trump.

These conspiracy theories can be more dangerous because they’re often harder to recognize as being fallacious, especially when they get repeated by people in government and mainstream media outlets.

But it gets worse.

These days, far too many people rely on social media for their primary source of news. That’s a problem in and of itself, and the current situation exemplifies why that is so.

When users of social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram pass along these false or exaggerated memes, they exacerbate the problem.

It’s one thing to see a new conspiracy from some unknown person in Peoria. It’s quite another when it shows up on Aunt Betsy’s Facebook feed.

People are much more likely to believe and pass along false information when they see it on the feed of someone they know.

What can we do? The blog I mentioned recommends five things.

— Be critical when you look at social media.

— Don’t leave false information in your online networks. You can politely ask the person who shared it to remove it.

— Report the false information to the platform administrators.

— When in doubt, take the time to verify the shared information.

— Make more noise than people who share false information.

I’d like to add to that list the following admonition: Don’t share anything that you can’t verify. It’s not difficult to verify the information.

There are a host of reliable fact-checking sites on the internet these days. One of the best is factcheck.org.

The highly regarded Poynter Institute now runs a massive searchable fact-checking database of coronavirus information at poynter.org/coronavirusfactsalliance. This is a great first step in researching any questionable memes you might run across.

We live in a brave new world where everyone can spread information — factual or otherwise — with a click or a swipe.

Because of this, we all share the responsibility of doing so in an informed and conscientious manner.

Please don’t be that person who shares questionable material and then laughs it off when called out. It’s not a joke. It can literally be life and death.

This article appeared in The Winchester Sun on May 29, 2020.

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