A young boy looks upwards while holding solar eclipse glasses to his eyes. Other adults and children are gathered around him.

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Don’t be blinded by solar eclipse misinformation

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On April 8, millions of people across North America will don special glasses, crane their necks and gaze skyward to view a rare natural phenomenon — a total solar eclipse.

An eclipse occurs when the shadow of the moon passes between the Earth and the sun, blotting out the sunlight for several minutes and darkening the sky. The upcoming eclipse will begin on the Pacific coast of Mexico a little after 2 p.m. ET and carve a diagonal path in the sky northeast across the U.S. before slipping off the continent in Newfoundland, Canada, shortly before 4 p.m. ET. The United States won’t see another total eclipse for 20 years.

Given the rarity of the event, it’s no surprise that the eclipse is generating conspiracy theories and misinformation, which have been spreading across social media and sparking fear, confusion and anxiety. Natural phenomena are often the subject of misinformation, and conspiracy theorists mine them for hidden meanings, secret government machinations and apocalyptic omens. The TikTok video we debunked on our RumorGuard® platform and the biblical-related falsehood we unmasked on Instagram are good examples of the scare-mongering circulating about this eclipse.

When family and friends share misinformation

Purveyors of mis- and disinformation who have a stake in its spread know that this is exactly the kind of content that well-intentioned friends and family might share widely. Just ask Tony Russomanno of California, who emailed us recently to share how he responded to eclipse-related misinformation that a relative shared and her friend amplified:

“i heard on the day of the Eclipse CELL PHONES may not work well or at all. be mindful and prepared. (April 8th)”

“They say plan on having cash on hand, plenty of food & water …”

Russomanno realized the women were being misled, so he researched credible information and replied to them in a thoughtful post that read, in part:

 “What both of you said is technically TRUE, but perhaps not for the reasons you may think.

“The eclipse will NOT affect cell service in any direct way. However, a story in The Herald-Times in Bloomington, Indiana, a town that will be in the path of totality, said that so many people will be visiting the area and streaming live video to their friends elsewhere that the local cell towers may not have the capacity to handle the increased usage.”

The misinformation about hoarding cash and food is similar to the hysteria before the turn of the millennium, when there were fears that the Y2K computer bug would bring down civilization. Spoiler alert: It didn’t.

‘A spark of truth’

There are several reasons for the appeal and intractability of conspiracy theories, and Russomanno shared an important insight. “Reading the story made me aware that even conspiratorial nonsense may contain a spark of truth.”

He used this realization to craft a response that prompted the women to  delete their posts. “That awareness shaped my reply. By leading with an acknowledgment that the rumors, as written, were ‘technically TRUE,’ the refutation that followed may have been received in a more amenable frame of mind.

You can avoid being tricked by scare tactics and wild conspiracies about everything from solar eclipses to U.S. elections by sharpening your news literacy skills. You will then be equipped to use that knowledge to help people in your community avoid these traps and stay well-informed, as Russomanno did. To begin, check out NLP’s free resources like RumorGuard, subscribe to our newsletters and explore our website.

If you are lucky enough to be in the path of the eclipse, remember, there’s no need to stock up on cash, candles and canned goods, but be sure to use proper eye protection before you look away from your phone and up at the sky.

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