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Beware misinformation–stop, search and then share during a pandemic Stop, search, then share in the age of COVID-19

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By Elise Lemay

Health & Wellness Editor

About a month ago, when my family first began to seriously social distance, I received a warning text from a college friend. Apparently a friend of their friend’s cousin who worked in the Pentagon had heard that the President would enact the Stafford Act, effectively shutting our country into mandated lockdown for two weeks.

 I squinted at the text. It sounded eerily familiar. I scrolled back through my texts from the previous few days. A day before, I had received the same text from a high school friend word for word. I told my college friend this and she let out a sigh of relief. She’d been panicked about the possibility of not being able to leave her home. This is what misinformation does. It leads to panic and unrest within society. 

In the age of social media and instantaneous access to endless streams of information, it’s not surprising that misinformation flows freely as well. In the time of COVID-19, we’ve seen misinformation spread as quickly as the virus itself. 

It makes sense. When we are most vulnerable, we are more likely to let our guards down, believing things we might not otherwise, and failing to take that extra minute to fact check something we see on Facebook. 

At a time like this, however, it’s more important than ever to keep our guard up, and to be extra diligent about fact checking the news we receive if it did not come from a credible news source. We cannot believe everything we hear. If we did, we might all be injecting disinfectant right now because the President told us to. 

In a survey sent to Saint Michael’s College students of 89 responses, 68 percent said that they get their news from social media. Only 46 percent said that they verify with other news sources. Now, imagine you encounter a tweet with misinformation about COVID-19 on their timeline. The tweet says something about the lockdown being extended for a year, and all stimulus checks being cut off. The participant is shocked upon reading it, and immediately decides his 300 followers need to see this. He retweets it without bothering to check with any outside news sources. Now, 300 new people have the opportunity to read this tweet, panic a bit, and then decide whether they will pause to check the facts or retweet itto hundreds more people. Soon one turns into thousands of misinformed people. So, how do we slow the spread of misinformation? I propose three steps. Stop, search, and then share. It’s crucial that the first two are done before the third. 

Stop

Right now, we are collectively frazzled. Every day we are being hit with headlines and information that are even scarier than what we saw the day before. It’s easy to post something that frightens us. But in a time like this, stop. Think about what you are reading. Does it sound like what’s been reported lately, or is it taking on a whole new narrative? Where is it coming from? Is it a verified reporter’s Twitter account, or a user with no profile picture and 200 followers? Does it sound too good to be true? Sometimes headlines are sensationalized and don’t accurately portray what is included in the article, instead making a sweeping statement without facts to back it up. 

Search 

Now that you’ve slowed down a bit, you can move on to searching. When we view news on social media, it’s important to search for it on other, reputable sources. Obviously, there is widespread debate about what a reputable source is. Here, I turned to Johns Hopkins Medicine. They recommend refraining from searching the whole internet, and instead turning to their medicine health library, or MedlinePlus, the online database for the U.S. National Library of Medicine. Johns Hopkins has created an online coronavirus resource center. Their news and information page includes articles from news sources with information included from Johns Hopkins experts in public health and medicine. If you see coronavirus information being shared on social media that you are not able to locate within these resources, there’s a good possibility it is misinformation. 

Share

It’s crucial that the first two steps have been completed successfully. If the information you searched was not verifiable, do not share it. You may wish to reply to the original poster with a source counteracting the information they shared.  If you searched and found that the information was true, it is safe to share. 

Now more than ever before, it is time to be mindful about misinformation, and to stop its  rapid spread. We must focus on verified information coming from medical and public health experts. We already have a global physical pandemic going on, we don’t need a digital one as well.

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