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GUIDE: How to vet information during a pandemic

Three tips for sharing information about the new coronavirus

  • Pause, and then ask: Does this content make me scared or angry? Think about why the information might have been created and shared.

  • Find out who created the information. Be very careful if there is no source.

  • Compare information you want to share against information from trusted and official sources.

During the 2014 Ebola outbreak, two people died after falling victim to a “cruel hoax”. They reportedly drank too much saltwater after a viral message falsely claimed it could prevent or cure the disease.

Almost six years later, it’s easy to see why we should be extra careful when sharing information during the global outbreak of Covid-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus.

But sorting fact from fiction can be difficult when you’re anxious and information uncertainty is high, as it often is during a crisis.

Kate Starbird, associate professor at the University of Washington, studies the flow of information during such events. In a recent post, she said the uncertainty was because while there are things we don’t yet know, what we think we do know might still change as new information comes out.

Some people come together online to “resolve” this uncertainty and anxiety, Starbird writes, “to figure out what is going on and what they should do about it”. Making sense of things as a group can help, but can also lead to the spread of harmful false information.

Don’t make a bad situation worse

You can either help spread false information, with possible serious consequences, or choose to share the best available information instead.

Here are three tips to help you tell the difference:

1. Pause, particularly if the post, tweet or message makes you scared or angry. 

False or unverified information can spread quickly, especially if it makes you feel particular emotions.

If you have an emotional response to a piece of information, ask yourself why someone is sharing it and what they’re trying to get you to do. That’s the advice Dr Claire Wardle, co-founder of anti-misinformation non-profit First Draft, gave in a recent television interview.

“We should develop more emotional scepticism because when we see something as we’re standing in line for coffee and … we reshare it without thinking, and that’s by design.” 

Wardle said the creators of disinformation – the deliberate spread of false information to cause harm – “want us to not be critical”.

2. Consider the source

When a friend or contact shares new information on Covid-19, it’s good to ask them: “How do you know that?” The answer can help you work out if they have first-hand knowledge of the information.

Be very careful if the message, tweet or post doesn’t say who created it or where the information came from. In this case, ask the sharer for the source or try to find it yourself. Double-check the facts before you decide to share.

If there is a source, find out if it’s the original source. For example, if a news organisation reports that another media outlet has reported something, you need to check if that is true. 

If you don’t recognise a media outlet as a trusted news organisation, look it up. Don’t only accept what the organisation says about itself. Do a search to see what others say about it, is the advice of Mike Caulfield, the author of Web Literacy for Student Fact-Checkers.

3. Try to find a trusted source

Check if fact-checking organisations have debunked the claim. For Covid-19, these are some good options:

What do the official sources say? For Covid-19, official sources include the World Health Organization, the National Institute for Communicable Diseases in South Africa and the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control.

Also check if a trusted media outlet has reported on the claim. If a story is true it will likely be reported by most media. 

Once you’ve asked why the content is being shared and by whom, and you’ve checked the claim against information provided by trusted and official sources, it’s time to decide whether or not to share.

During a pandemic, you should err on the side of caution. When in doubt, don’t share.

You can find a list of all our novel coronavirus fact-checks here

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