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Want to help others avoid COVID-19? Don’t share misinformation!

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When a news event or a significant issue grabs hold of the public’s attention, it’s human nature for us to want to get our hands on as much information as we can as fast as we can.

It’s also human nature to act on an impulse to share that information with friends, family and the wider community in an effort to keep people safe from harm. Unfortunately, large breaking news events — especially those connected to controversial, frightening and complex subjects, like the current COVID-19 pandemic — tend to generate a spike in viral rumors.

These stories, anecdotes, ads and memes pass quickly from one person to the next, often with little regard to whether the content is true. Some elements may be accurate, but much is simply a form of digital rumor — half-truths, doctored videos and images, or complete fabrications.

They typically appeal to our emotions, provoking anger, fear, curiosity or hope and overriding our rational minds and critical-thinking skills. When we have an immediate strong response to a piece of content online, our impulse is to take action: to “like” it, to share it immediately, to express whatever we’re feeling about it. Because of that impulse, and because Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and other platforms effortlessly connect us to thousands of people (many of whom we’ve never even met), this content spreads rapidly across social media — even from one platform to another.

So think of these rumors like an actual virus. Mike Baker, a New York Times reporter in Seattle, has been tweeting weekly about the exponential increase in confirmed COVID-19 cases in the United States. A “like,” share or retweet of false or unverified content on social media spreads the same way — and the numbers are considerably larger.

Who shares COVID-19 rumors?

Why would someone make up a story or share an unverified rumor? As Craig Silverman noted in Lies, Damn Lies and Viral Content, a 2016 report for Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism, behavioral economist Cass Sunstein identified four main types of rumor propagators in his book On Rumors. Here is a quick explanation of what they are and how they apply to the information we see online:

  • Those who promote self-interest at the expense of others (for example, people spreading scams and using falsehoods to build up large followings online).
  • Those who promote the interests of a group they favor or support (for example, people in one political party who share false claims or misleading videos about a politician in the other party).
  • Those motivated by malicious intent (for example, trolls who seek to derail conversations or extremists advancing agendas of hate online).
  • Those who act for altruistic reasons (for example, people with a sincere desire to warn others about a possible threat).

In the case of the coronavirus pandemic, we see all of those motivations playing out in our social media feeds. And you might be surprised to discover the biggest misinformation vector in the current crisis: people acting on the altruistic impulse to help others avoid infection — and sharing misinformation without realizing that it’s false or misleading.

Seek credible sources

Whatever the intent, the best way to protect yourself and others from infection with misinformation about COVID-19 or the strain of coronavirus that causes it is to fact-check before you share. There are a number of resources and sites to help you do that. Here are a few:

You can stay ahead of the latest viral rumors — and learn how not to be fooled — by subscribing to our free weekly newsletter, The Sift®; exploring the Get Smart About News section of our website; and downloading our free mobile app, Informable.

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