How to Deal with Coronavirus (Mis)Information Overload

    24 March 2020

    Information about the coronavirus seems to spread as fast as the virus itself. Sometimes it is just too much information—an overload. Some people even spread misinformation on purpose.

    How can you separate what is true, and what is not?

    Along with facts about the new coronavirus, untrue rumors are spreading through phone texts, social media and other places. For example, in the United States a rumor has been spreading that officials plan to order a nationwide lockdown. Not true. Another rumor claims that people can get tested for the virus by donating their blood. And the U.S. government has sent warning letters to several companies selling products that they claim will cure COVID-19 or protect against the virus.

    Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, with Vice President Mike Pence behind him, speaks during a briefing about the coronavirus in the James Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House, March 15, 2020,
    Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, with Vice President Mike Pence behind him, speaks during a briefing about the coronavirus in the James Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House, March 15, 2020,

    Such false stories can endanger public health and create fear.

    COVID-19 is the disease caused by the virus. Thousands across the world have been affected by it. In most infected people, COVID-19 produces minor or moderate effects, like an increased temperature and dry cough. Some people might also experience tiredness and pain.

    Most people recover from the sickness within two weeks. But, for older adults and people with other health problems, the disease can be severe, sometimes even deadly.

    How can you separate fact from fiction? How can you know what is true and what is false?

    Here are some ways:

    Check the source

    Human nature makes us more likely to believe things our friends tell us. It is why rumors spread and why misinformation travels on social media. Everyone says they heard it from a friend of a friend, "who knows someone who knows" about an issue.

    Be suspicious of important-sounding information if it does not come from a respected source connected to the issue. Usually dependable sources include government agencies and health departments. Other organizations to trust include national and international public health institutes such as the World Health Organization.

    Some of the most trusted sources of information include research hospitals and public health centers in the United States and other countries, along with the World Health Organization. They provide the latest numbers, advisories and guides on everything from how to clean your home to remove the virus and how to deal with stress the pandemic is causing.

    Dr. Jessica Justman is an infectious disease expert at Columbia University. She said just the large amount of information online can be complexing.

    "It's not just misinformation, it's also a lack of good information," Justman said.

    "Go straight to the source. The CDC has been putting out great information."

    Act like a journalist

    John Silva is director of education at the News Literacy Project, a non-profit group in Washington D.C.

    He says anyone searching for true information needs to act a little like a reporter by investigating suspect claims. Be careful of information from unknown or little-known groups or news organizations.

    Also, remember there is a difference between news stories and opinion pieces but both should be supported by evidence or expertise to be dependable.

    Do not immediately repost what you see

    A 2018 Twitter study by Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers found that false news travels faster than real news — often much faster. That is because these stories often use language designed to create strong emotional reaction. The stories seek to connect with public fears or anger.

    The researchers also found that misinformation spreads quickly because people retweet stories based on headlines. So read the whole story, investigate the source and consider carefully before reposting to prevent the spread of false information.

    Even images can lie

    Pictures are said to be worth a thousand words. But, even photographs and videos can be edited and changed. Even untouched images can be false. For example, old images can be presented as new. Again, it helps to look for the source. Google's reverse image search can help find where a photo came from. For videos, investigate the post source - was it a traditional news organization? The WHO? A university?

    Dr. Ruth Parker is a physician at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta. She said Americans must be responsible in spreading information.

    "It's a scary time," Parker said. "We don't want to add fuel to the fire. Good information won't cure us, but it will help to calm us."

    I'm Jonathan Evans.

    Barbara Ortutay and David Klepper reported this story for the Associated Press. Anne Ball adapted it for VOA Learning English. Caty Weaver was the editor.

    How are you finding good information on the coronavirus? We want to hear from you. Write to us in the Comments Section.


    Words in This Story

    rumor – n. information or a story that is passed from person to person but has not been proven true

    text – n. written words or message

    cough – n. a physical condition or illness that causes someone to cough—which is when you force air through your throat with a short loud noise

    fiction – n. a story that is not true

    pandemic – n. an occurrence in which a disease spreads very quickly and affects a large number of people over a wide area or throughout the world

    photograph – n. a picture made by a camera