Nine tips for spotting misinformation about the coronavirus
Navigating science news can be tricky because it often requires contextualizing new information within a broader field and recognizing that breakthroughs do not happen overnight. We are now saturated and exhausted by the flood of information about COVID-19, which seems to change daily. How do you stay calm and informed in this situation? Here are nine questions to ask yourself as you read, watch, or listen to the news.
1. Does the story play on your emotions or present facts using neutral language?
How does the information—and the way it is presented—make you feel? COVID-19, if left unchecked, poses deadly consequences on a massive scale, so some fear and anxiety is warranted. But is a story trying to manipulate your emotions, either blowing a threat out of proportion or minimizing something that you should take seriously?
Watch for stories that use emotion-laden words with minimal evidence. They will often present half-truths in an alarmist way, such as one fake story that claims the virus has been intentionally “weaponized” to “kill off millions.” A credible news story might state that the virus has the potential to kill large numbers of people, but it is unlikely to use italics, which in this case are intended to evoke alarm.
If you catch yourself experiencing strong feelings after seeing a story, pause and consider why you feel that way. Take a deep breath, name the emotion you are feeling (“name it to tame it”), then decide if this is something important enough to look up in other sources to confirm its accuracy—and whether your feeling is justified.
2. Is it too good to be true?
Be wary of headlines boasting “game-changer” treatments or revolutionary measures. Science tends to gain knowledge in small steps; rarely do scientific solutions yield true “breakthrough” cures—and certainly not miracles. A good science news story will place a new study in the context of past research and will be corroborated by credible institutions tasked with managing the pandemic. A good science reporter will also ask other scientists not involved in a study what they think of its findings and significance.
Ignore or skeptically review weird, miraculous prevention techniques like smoking, eating garlic, or blasting a hair dryer in your face to kill the virus. Look out for “easy solutions” that seem to benefit a specific person, organization, or company, like prevention items you can buy from one specific place. Con artists looking to make a buck often use this as a sales technique. Quick and easy solutions spread online because they provide the reader with a false sense of control. If a solution seems too good to be true, it probably is. In a public health crisis, expert-recommended solutions like social distancing and handwashing may be less likely to quell anxiety because they do not yield immediately visible results.
3. What is the date of the story?
With COVID-19, each day matters. As the situation develops and time passes, the context changes and more data becomes available.
As national and international health organizations update their guidelines and more people get sick, even accurate coronavirus information from a week ago could be outdated. Keep the date of the article in mind as you read. Do not pass old information around until you confirm that it’s still correct and relevant.
4. Who is the author?
We often don’t check the original source of an article that comes to us via social media. (In fact, nearly 60% of articles shared on social media are passed on by users who don’t even read beyond the headline.)
Does the information come from a reputable journalist who would have checked all the facts, a well-established health expert, or a knowledgeable government representative? If no author is listed, or you can’t confirm the person’s identity in a reputable source, or you do not recognize the author’s affiliation—be on guard. Fake experts and doctors are rife on social networks.
5. Does the information come from a credible source?
Don’t take the author of every news article at their word. To dig deeper, look at the data or study that the story is based upon.
Is the data from a reputable institution or journal, such as the CDC, WHO, Science, or New England Journal of Medicine? Reliable journals—and there are thousands of them—have a rigorous peer-review process to ensure that published studies are accurate.
However, just as there are fake news publishers, there are fake journals. You can search for these at Beall’s List and access tools for recognizing predatory journals. To identify whether the author of a science or medical study is credible, check their credentials or verify that they are cited by other health experts.
6. Does the story use or abuse data?
Credible sources of data on the virus’s spread and prevention should be clearly referenced. If the story throws out numbers but does not explain where they come from, beware of data manipulation.
For example, a story may state how quickly the virus spreads without citing a source or referencing a specific country context. As different countries are in different stages of the pandemic, with differing levels of mitigation (e.g., social distancing measures), numbers without context risk under- or overplaying the severity of the situation.
Also be wary of data abuse in the form of apps or posts that ask you to contribute your personal data. For example, the Iranian government has promoted an app to citizens as a COVID-19 diagnostic tool, but the app’s true purpose is to collect real-time location data from a person’s phone so that the government can monitor potential political opponents.
7. Does it show causation or correlation?
Amidst the high volume of sometimes conflicting information about the pandemic, it can be easy to conflate causation and correlation. Two things can be “correlated,” or change in unison with each other, without one causing the other.
For example, when ice cream sales increase, so do drowning deaths. Does this mean that ice cream causes drowning? No. Ice cream sales and drowning deaths are correlated because both occur during summer months.
Similarly, some news stories speculate that the virus is seasonal because the number of infections is higher in the Global North than the Global South. But we do not yet have conclusive evidence (as of early April) to prove causation. It could simply be, for example, that the virus hasn't been widely detected yet in countries with under resourced health care systems, which are overwhelmingly in the Global South.
8. Does the story talk about cost and availability?
News coverage of medical treatments can hype new potential cures long before they’re actually available to the public. Lots of newly discovered medical treatments can be described as “promising.”
In the case of COVID-19, with treatments and vaccines still in development, treatment may have limited availability. If the treatment can’t be produced on a massive scale or it is too expensive for most people to afford, it won’t matter. Does the story just talk about research or does it also address whether a potential treatment can realistically be brought to market and made accessible to millions—or billions—of people?
9. Of mice or men?
Many medical experiments are conducted on rodents—or other nonhumans—first. While these studies can produce useful insights, just because a treatment works on mice doesn’t mean that it will work on people. Be skeptical of articles hyping the results of research conducted on animals, especially if the author doesn’t clearly state that the results may or may not hold true in humans.
Medical research is slow and laborious. Often, multiple human trials—which can take years—are necessary to definitively prove that a treatment is effective and safe. In the case of COVID-19, most health experts agree that it will take at least 12 or 18 months before a vaccine can be properly tested and made widely available.