How to weed out fake coronavirus news and misinformation online

How to weed out fake coronavirus news and misinformation online

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV) - The coronavirus pandemic has left most of us feeling a little helpless. There is so much we don’t know. It leaves us hungry for any tidbit that can give us a sense of control over the situation.

But it’s led to another problem: an infodemic.

"False information about the virus itself is spread faster than the virus,” said Andrew Pattison from the World Health Organization, “and it's got into more people's lives and infected more people than the virus itself."

Essentially, it’s an information overload. In an age where we rely on social media for our news and interactions – it’s easy to take most information you see in your newsfeed as fact.

If your good friend shares it on social media, why shouldn’t you believe them? Your friend probably has good intentions. But here’s the problem: there’s a plethora of wrong information floating around online. And it can be hard to spot.

Here’s an example. Last week, On Your Side Tonight got an email about this image from the CDC:

This image from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention has been circling the internet making people believe the CDC is telling people to shave their beards to prevent the coronavirus. This image is not related to the coronavirus and was posted in 2017.
This image from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention has been circling the internet making people believe the CDC is telling people to shave their beards to prevent the coronavirus. This image is not related to the coronavirus and was posted in 2017. (Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC))

It’s been floating around online. It’s been paired with articles claiming people need to shave their beards to protect themselves from Covid-19. Turns out, the image was taken out of context. It was published in 2017 to explain how facial hair can hinder face masks. However, the CDC does not recommend wearing face masks during the Covid-19 outbreak. Your beards are safe.

If there’s one thing we can control right now – it’s the spread of misinformation. We can do it using something called the SIFT method. Think of it as washing your hands, but online. It only takes about 30 seconds - and it can make all the difference in stopping a dangerous spread.

SIFT method
SIFT method (Source: Mike Caulfield)

Mike Caulfield of Washington State University developed the SIFT method. Here’s how it breaks down.

  • Stop
  • Investigate The Source
  • Find Better Coverage
  • Trace Claims, Quotes, and Media to the Original Context

Let’s break each of these steps down. Your first method of action: stop. When you see something on your newsfeed that grabs your attention – take a step back.

“Stop is the most important of the moves,” Caulfield says, “You get this thing, you’re shocked. You have an emotional reaction and you have this urge to share. You have this urge to comment. You have this urge to react. Whenever you feel a strong emotion, we ask you to notice that you’re feeling the strong emotion and just stop.”

Caulfield says take 30 seconds to process your reaction and whether you have the information you need to understand what’s in front of you.

Still feel an urge to share? Move on to the next step: Investigate the source. Does the person posting know what they are talking about?

“The first thing you have to ask is, is this sharing source an authority on this in some way? Do they have some sort of academic professional expertise that would give them insight? Are they in what we call a position to know?” Caulfield explained.

Spotting 'fake news'
Spotting 'fake news' (Source: Mike Caulfield)

Ask yourself these questions:

  • Is this information coming from a credible source?
  • Is this a news organization?
  • Is this person a certified expert?
  • Is this a legitimate website?

Do a little research on the website or the person. If you don't recognize either - sometimes something as simple as Wikipedia will have information on their reliability or background.

Is the information checking off boxes so far? Move on to step three: Find better coverage. If this is the first time you're seeing this information, or maybe it seems a little off, try searching the headline.

“The sharing source was not credible enough in itself. So, your second step is go and see if other credible sources are reporting this,” Caulfield says.

He suggests doing something called a news search crosscheck.

“Take something from maybe the headline or the title or the text message and you plug it into something like Google news search, Bing news search, something like that. And you just see if other organizations or stations are reporting this.”

Now to the final step: Trace claims, quotes, and media to the original context.

“Sometimes it gets a little more difficult, right? Sometimes someone puts a claim in front of you and you know they don’t have the authority and you can’t find other coverage on it. Some, in that case, look at what the person shared and see what they are claiming as their source.”

Caulfield suggests looking for a few key things.

Did they reference something else? Find the original source.

“And then if that source is credible, that's good. You can continue on your merry way.”

Beyond the source, there’s another crucial box to check. When was this information posted?

“A lot of things that people share are out of date and are mis-contextualized.”

Here’s an example from Caulfield below:

Check the date.
Check the date. (Source: Mike Caulfield)

See this headline? It reads: ‘"New flu unstoppable" World Health Organization says, calls for vaccine.’ It’s from Reuters, which is credible. Everything checks off. But open the article and check the date.

This is about the H1N1 flu, back in 2009. It's out of context. Seeing a headline like that can throw you off.

Another important point: Sometimes, the post or headline attached to a story can be completely different from the story itself.

Open it up, read through it. Is the headline relevant to the article? If not - do not share.

These are some simple steps we can all take to make sure we’re only spreading the right information - and keeping everyone around us safe.

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