As people social distance themselves and choose to stay home to help stop the spread of the coronavirus, social media makes it easy to keep in touch with others. But the communication platforms also spur the spread of misinformation.
Lilian “Lil” Alessa, a professor and co-director of the University of Idaho’s Center for Resilient Communities, said it’s everyone’s patriotic duty to ensure the information they share is reliable. She also advises people to question everything they see on social media, because that’s where adversaries exploit misinformation.
“We really need people to practice good citizenship and to not put stuff out there if it is not vetted or verified, because it can create panic and that can harm people as much as the virus can,” Alessa said. “Everyone is worried about getting sick, or they should be, but not practicing good citizenship with good information can be putting others at risk.”
Misinformation can affect someone’s mental health; it can sow fear, panic and complacency, Alessa said.
She said it’s important to first look at the source of the information: Does it come from a reputable organization like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or the World Health Organization? Or a scientist, a verified journalist, or another authoritative source?
If so, it’s likely good to go. But, to ensure it’s correct, the information should be traced back to the primary authority or corresponding data.
That information should then be verified with at least two other credible sources.
If that’s not possible, Alessa said people can reach out to their local universities or colleges for guidance.
“Use those assets that right now need to service society for what they were designed to do, which is to help people navigate data that is overwhelming,” Alessa said.
Another option is to trace the information back to the source in charge. For example, if you hear there’s an extended school closure, verify that information with the district before spreading it further.
It’s important to question everything you see, Alessa said, including memes, which often include unverified information.
“I call it either inadvertent or purposeful lies intended to influence,” Alessa said. “This kind of information is most effective when it’s mixed carefully with the truth, and that’s where it gets hard for people to separate fact from fiction.”
And if you’re still not sure, Alessa recommends not sharing the link, image or information at all.
“If you don’t have enough information, err on the side of caution,” she said. “Right now, we are in an unprecedented time and we also know we have a number of adversaries, or nations, that would like to see us weaker from within. We have some indication that they could use this misinformation specifically to ensure that we don’t come back as quickly from this as we possibly could.”
Tomtas may be contacted at email@example.com or (208) 848-2294. Follow her on Twitter @jtomtas.