Sorting falsehoods from facts

From conspiracy theories about COVID-19 to unsubstantiated or even dangerous product claims, false health information is everywhere these days. This includes both misinformation (incorrect statements spread by someone who essentially doesn’t know better) and disinformation (false information being spread deliberately by a bad actor to promote an agenda).

“Health misinformation and disinformation have always been with us. It’s nothing new,” says Kasisomayajula Viswanath, Lee Kum Kee professor of health communication at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “We had snake-oil salesmen when advertising began. But what’s different this time around is the scale.” Both mass media and social media are allowing bad information to reach large swaths of people quickly, making it difficult for many people to differentiate the good from the bad.

A pandemic of false information

The amount of incorrect information circulating about the COVID-19 pandemic has been particularly problematic, says Viswanath.

An April 2020 study published by the Pew Research Center found that some 50% of Americans reported difficulty determining if information they saw about the COVID-19 pandemic was factual, and another 64% said they have encountered information that seemed “completely made up.”

There are several reasons why the pandemic has spawned a deluge of false information, says Viswanath.

First, since the disease is so new, there is a dearth of information about COVID-19. Doctors and scientists have learned everything they know about SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, in a matter of months. “It’s quite incredible what we have learned in those months, but there is still an information gap,” says Viswanath.

It is in those gaps that misinformation and disinformation finds its footing, giving people something to cling to when they are looking to learn about the disease.

The second issue is that bad information spreads easily. “For example, I saw a video that was clearly hokey,” says Viswanath. “It begins with James Bond–type music, and there are Chinese soldiers, in space suits, who get out of a van and start circling a neighborhood, going from house to house, shooting everyone who has COVID-19.” The video was not true, but people were able to share it easily with the click of a button. And it spreads, in part because it’s designed to be provocative and entertaining, says Viswanath.

Third, authority figures exacerbated the problem. “We had a president who was a super-spreader of misinformation and disinformation,” says Viswanath. This creates a larger problem. When an authority figure shares information, it gains legitimacy, even if it’s false. It also becomes difficult for the mainstream media to ignore the claim. This essentially allows false information to move beyond the fringes, where it otherwise might have stayed, he says.

Seeking the truth

The question is, what can you do about this spread of false information, and how can you know if what you’re reading is accurate? As it turns out, that’s the challenging part, says Viswanath. But there are some strategies that you can use.

Understand the problem. Protecting the public from misinformation shouldn’t just be the responsibility of the individual, but should belong to social media platforms and journalists. “People are very busy. Asking them to take on this monumentally challenging task of sorting through information is not reasonable,” he says. With this in mind, understand that even if you are savvy, you may still have difficulty in this area. So, defer=”defer” to trusted experts, such as your doctor, local health officials, and credible sources such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health, he says. It’s the job of public health officials to sort through this mass of information for you and boil it down to what you need to know. “At the end of the day, if it is a medical issue, ask your doctor,” says Viswanath.

Be selective. “Don’t pay attention to every new article that comes out every second of the day,” says Viswanath. It may seem that there is a constant flow of new studies that contradict the ones that came before. But this is really just how the scientific process works. It doesn’t move in a straight line, says Viswanath. Consensus on specific points and health recommendations takes time, often after experts step back and look at an entire body of research, not just one study.

Instead of focusing on the minutiae, limit your reading to what you need to know for your day-to-day life. Again, trust your doctors and local and federal health officials, and follow their recommendations.

“If you do that, you don’t need to follow every scientific finding,” says Viswanath.

Don’t share. Journalists typically spend days or weeks vetting information before disseminating it to the public. But the average person on social media will look at something for 10 seconds and hit “send,” allowing bad information to spread quickly. Don’t be part of the problem. Think twice before you forward information, says Viswanath.

Bible verses for today’s meditation and inspiration: Matthew E. McLaren

“If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!” – Matthew 7:11

 “A cheerful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones.” – Proverbs 17:22

 “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.” – Philippians 4:6

 “Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.” – Proverbs 4:23

 “For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind.” – 2 Timothy 1:7

 “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters,[a] whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance.” – James 1:2-3

 “In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.” – Proverbs 3:6

 “Commit your actions to the LORD, and your plans will succeed.”- Proverbs 16:3

 “Consider the ravens: They do not sow or reap, they have no storeroom or barn; yet God feeds them. And how much more valuable you are than birds!” Luke 12:24 – Luke 12:24

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