Over the past few months, we’ve all been urged to stop the spread of coronavirus by maintaining social distance and wearing masks when in public. We’ve adapted and grown used to ‘doing our bit’. But in moments of crisis, disinformation lingers on, particularly on social media. This misinformation can be equally harmful to our communities. It can urge us to make bad health decisions, make us run when we shouldn’t, hurt our economies, or even stir up distrust or violence against our neighbors.
We’re not the first generation to have spread rumors and harmful propaganda during a crisis. Posters from the Great Depression and World War II reminded citizens they could do unexpected damage to their communities by spreading misinformation. They explained how spreading rumors could accidentally give information to the enemy, or tie up phone lines. And they talked about basic hygiene as well, reminding the public that staying healthy was doing their part to protect the home front.
Social media makes spreading disinformation much, much easier than it was in the age of telephones and telegraphs. We’ve seen an explosion of suggested cures for coronavirus, some of them coming from supposedly reputable but definitely non-medical sources. And we’ve seen an uptick in people made sick because they followed this advice.
I’m not going to say the responsibility to fight this disinformation is our job alone. We need to pressure social media companies and our elected officials to stop the spread of false information. There are a few simple actions each of us can take to make sure we’re not spreading harmful information in our communities.
What actions should we take?
For each piece of information, we re-share from someone else, we should start with the “Whoa. Wait. What?” process recommended by Erin Gibson, a journalism instructor at the University of Southern Indiana.
Recognizing when we’re saying “Whoa” to ourselves is the first step. Rather than just absorbing a startling headline and going on to the next thing, it’s better to pause. If you don’t, your brain may treat that information as true, even if it turns out to be flat-out wrong. When something surprises you, recognize that you’re surprised. Stop to think for a minute—that’s the “Wait” step. Pause before you share news, images, videos, rumors or reports from your friends.
In the “What?” stage, we should ask the following questions:
How does the person who wrote it want me to feel? How does it make me feel?
We’re more likely to spread information when it frightens us. When we’re afraid, we make fast, impulsive decisions. Those decisions can hurt our families and communities—even if it feels like we’re making our family safer.
To understand the emotional impact of what you’re sharing on you, and what it could be on others, do the following:
- Check in with how you are feeling right now. Are you feeling good or bad? Is there a part of your body that is tense?
- Name how you are feeling out loud, if you can: say “I’m worried,” or “I’m stressed out,” or “I’m frustrated,” or however you’re feeling. Speaking it aloud can help you cope with your mood and calm down.
Then ask yourself: Is what I’m about to share trying to make someone feel a certain way? Take a look at the words in it. Are they neutral descriptions of what’s happening, or do they inspire certain emotions? The same goes for other aspects of what you share, like images and music. Does this piece of media have scary music or sound effects? Is unusual color, black-and-white, or fast editing between camera angles used to make the video more startling?
Is there really an action I can take, and what would be the consequences of that action?
In many cases, there’s nothing we can do about something we see in the news. It’s frightening to admit, but it may just be out of our control. And we need to consider whether sharing that frightening information may do more harm than good.
The next step after checking in with your emotional state is to ask yourself: is the frightening thing in the news actually going to affect me, here, right now? Then ask: is getting worried or angry going to solve the problem?
If the answer is no, take care of yourself and reduce your stress. My number one piece of advice for technology is if you’re not using it right now, turn it off. That goes for everything from your notifications to your internet connection. Here are some specifics:
- Turn off notification sounds, lights, and messages from your devices. Set your phone to “do not disturb” when you need to sleep, focus on family time, or work.
- Set a timer to remind you to log off and go do something else. Or check out these recommendations for apps that can help you manage your online time.
- Whatever you do, turn off 24/7 news. I don’t care which side of the political spectrum your news is—if a channel has to fill 24 hours, it’ll keep you as anxious as possible to keep you watching. Switch to something entertaining or soothing if you need that feeling of connection.
- Go for a walk or get exercise to reset your brain chemistry.
- “Look for the helpers.” Mr. Rogers’s advice for scary situations still holds today. Intentionally seeking out positive stories of our neighbors doing good for each other can alleviate our stress as well as that of our children.
What does the person who wrote it want me to do, or what solution does it suggest?
Often, when someone is trying to manipulate us, they will pressure us to take action quickly, playing on our fear of what could happen if we don’t act, or our fear of being left out. This happens with phishing email as well as with social media—and we’re seeing a lot of phishing campaigns playing on COVID fears right now, both peddling quack cures and running the usual phishing scams of trying to steal from your accounts. So before you share something, slow down and ask these questions:
Does the information recommend specific steps to take to stay healthy? If so, double-check with scientific organizations or fact-checking sites (see some recommendations below). If those sites don’t confirm that a medication, natural treatment, or action is useful, it’s not worth taking it.
Does this piece of information recommend extreme actions? Why? What are those actions supposed to accomplish? Health organizations recommended social distancing because the data about infection and death rates in other countries made it clear hospitals could become quickly overwhelmed to the point they’d have to decide not to treat those who were less likely to survive. By slowing the rate of infection as a society, we made it so fewer doctors had to make these decisions.
In the case of social isolation, extreme measures were a good thing. By contrast, pictures of empty shelves at stores pushed some people to extreme behavior: panic buying. That extreme measure hurt those around us. Hoarding of protective masks took supplies away from doctors and nurses who really needed them. This is why it’s important to get your advice from large organizations of doctors, scientists, and other experts who have come to an agreement over what works and what doesn’t base on large bodies of evidence.
Does this agree with me?
One of the most devious things about bad information is how it wants to take advantage of our opinions and feelings. We’re likely to spread information we agree with, even if that information is false. How often have you shared a quote or funny picture of a politician just because it felt true to you?
I’ve got some bad news for you: that quote or image may have been created by someone who wants to start fights in your community. We know from events in the past few years that the Russian government has been remotely organizing protests in the United States to play to our dissatisfaction with both political parties or paralyze us with confusion and fear. Their goal is to weaken our democracy by driving us to more extreme versions of the beliefs we already hold.
We often share things because of what they say about us—that we’re a good Christian/Muslim/Jew/atheist/parent/teacher/boss/social media influencer/etc. In the pandemic, we may be sharing information about what’s happening because it makes us feel more in control of the situation to be knowledgeable. Or we may feel better because we’re the one making our community aware of the danger.
When you feel inclined to share a post about political decisions, again, say, “Whoa. Wait. What?” and slow down and think before you share. We have to acknowledge when we’re really spreading information to make ourselves look or feel good, and think about the possible effects of what we spread. If we’re always looking for “likes” and other approval for the things we share, the drive to share more may push us to spread bad information as well as good.
Who made this? What do other sources say about this specific piece of information?
It’s also important to get a sense of where information comes from. Can you tell who created what you’re looking at? If you don’t know who it is, you have no way of knowing how they edited the video footage or came up with facts they’re reporting on. If it just looks like something recorded or written by your friend firsthand, ask them: did you really record this? Sometimes we assume our friends made something themselves when they actually didn’t.
No matter where you get your information, comparing it to other sources is a good idea. Once you’ve got a sense of where something is from, double-check any information in it against information in long-standing, trusted outlets. For science or medical news, that could be places like the Centers for Disease Control, World Health Organization, Mayo Clinic, the New England Journal of Medicine, the Harvard School of Public Health or Johns Hopkins Medicine.
Compare with other news outlets as well; if you distrust news outlets in your country, compare to international outlets like the BBC or AFP. Also, check to see if the information is turning up as false at Snopes.com or Factcheck.org.
We are in a historical moment when disinformation will cost lives. It’s up to us to stop spreading it so we don’t hurt our friends and families. As public agencies advised during World War II, free speech doesn’t mean careless talk. It’s time to keep calm when we log on.
Thanks to my sister Ariel for pushing the important messaging from the CDC. I hope you’re getting some better sleep now.
Read more from Gillian “Gus” Andrews in Keep Calm and Log On