COVID-19 does not spread alone. The virus spreads alongside medical myths and health hoaxes which create a misinfodemic — an epidemic of misinformation — that could render this crisis even more deadly. Studies show that false health news travels farther and faster than accurate information.
You can protect yourself with these tools to help you separate fact from myth. When evaluating a health claim about COVID-19, ask yourself these 5 questions:
1. Can I find the original source?
Posts spreading falsehoods often omit an original source and simply say “experts claim..” Credible news sources are more likely to cite the study authors and provide evidence for the claims. Once you’ve identified the source of the information, ask yourself: Who is making the claim? Have they been reliable in the past? Do their peers trust them — even the ones who might disagree with them?
Health organizations such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and World Health Organization (WHO) are credible sources of information on COVID-19. You can follow them on social media platforms, such as Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, and YouTube.
2. Can I find the source of the image?
If an image is part of the claim, it is important to search for the original source. Images can be altered or taken out of context. Even more deceptive is ‘deepfake’ technology which allows people to manipulate videos so it appears one person is speaking another person’s words.
You can check the source of an image using a reverse search engine and the source of a video using Amnesty International’s DataViewer. Once you’ve found the source, ask yourself: Has the media been doctored in any way? Do earlier versions of the image or video look different to what’s being shared?
3. When was the original information first posted?
The coronavirus that causes COVID-19 was identified in January 2020, and scientists are still working to understand the virus and how to treat it. In the context of a quickly shifting situation with rapidly evolving scientific understanding, it’s important to check that you are reading the most recent information. Once you’ve found the date of an article or post, ask yourself: Is this the most recent knowledge about the virus?
4. Do multiple sources agree with the claim?
A claim is more credible when multiple sources agree. For a scientific finding to be validated, multiple scientists in different laboratories must show the same results. Similarly, drugs typically need multiple studies to show that they are effective in treating a disease. When you find a new claim, ask yourself: Has this news been verified by other credible people and organizations? Have these results been replicated in multiple studies?
5. Am I considering other sides of the argument?
When reading new information, it is crucial to keep an open mind, because everyone brings their own assumptions and long-held beliefs to the table. Many claims will play on emotions and fears, which can cause people to more easily disregard evidence. Once you become attached to a claim, it’s easy to only adopt reasoning that supports that claim and denies the counterevidence.
Before deciding whether a piece of news is true, ask yourself: Why do I believe or not believe this? What are my personal biases on this? Am I keeping an open mind?
Use these tips to vet news articles and social media posts before you share them. Here at the Stanford Health Communication Initiative and Digital Medic, we’re busting myths and answering your questions about COVID-19 to help spread accurate news and squash the misinfodemic.
These tips are modified from a list in Viral BS: Medical Myths and Why We Fall for Them, by Stanford Health Communication Initiative director, Dr. Seema Yasmin.