Help flatten the curve of misinformation

As the numbers continue to rise in the evolving coronavirus pandemic, the amount of information is also increasing exponentially. News and speculation are spreading so fast that the normal mechanisms for releasing information supported by the scientific consensus may fail for a number of reasons: lack of reliable data, limited access to expert sources, or insufficient time to work through the normal procedures to clean and verify data.

The issue is urgent, complex, and quickly moving. As scientists and science communicators, we have a duty to clearly and responsibly communicate reliable information to the general public. Our work has the potential to change people’s understanding, which can change their behavior—which can change the course of the pandemic. It’s critical to get it right now.

How can we help “flatten the curve” of misinformation? In this case, not through isolation, but instead through responsible social engagement. We all have a part to play in this. Scientists can not only provide solid information, but also help as a fact-checkers fighting against COVID-19 health misinformation.

Why it is important to “flatten the curve” of misinformation?

Misinformation is noise; reducing it allows the signal of life-saving information to get through. “We’re not just fighting an epidemic; we’re fighting an infodemic,” said the WHO Director-General.

  • Misinformation can either scare people, leading to panic and ineffective overreaction (like hoarding toilet paper), or falsely put them at ease.
  • It can distract people from maintaining the fundamental protective measures (social distancing, hand-washing, and staying home).
  • By trying unproven remedies or cleaning methods, people might harm themselves (for example, by irritating sensitive areas such as their skin or gut) or exacerbate an existing condition they may have. We definitely don’t want more people rushing to the ER at a time when the healthcare system is already strained.
  • Opportunists are trying to profit from fear and confusion by selling quack products for special protection. These are likely to be expensive and ineffective, or even harmful. These products also generate distrust about the well-proven treatments—for example, by promoting “special” hand sanitizer formulas rather than soap and water.

Every single death is a tragedy, particularly every preventable death. We all have to work together to prevent that from happening.

Beware of being a misinformation “super-spreader”

What makes someone a “super-spreader”? The novel coronavirus spreads easily because spreaders don’t have noticeable symptoms. Super-spreaders look healthy, and they feel well enough while they’re infectious that they might get on a plane or go to a market. We can learn a serious lesson from the case of super-spreader Patient 31 in South Korea, who in mid-March was believed to be responsible for at least 60% of infections in that country.

Be aware that you could be “infected” with misinformation and not noticing major symptoms. Make sure to fact-check any statements you make about the pandemic, and try to anticipate associations that could lead to misunderstandings. For more strategies for effective fact-checking, see the Communication Lab’s blog post on Reading Responsibly in a Pandemic.

If you work in biology, medicine, public health, or similar fields, be aware that journalists might try to reach out to you for information. The virus is newly discovered, and the few researchers specialized in similar viruses are now extremely busy and difficult to reach. Remember that having a PhD or teaching at a prestigious medical school doesn’t make you an expert in COVID-19. However, you can still help by pointing journalists to well-vetted scientific publications, or by drawing attention to flawed reasoning from journalists who may not have deep background in biology or statistics. Remember that they are working under time pressure in uncharted terrain, and that you can help them by cutting out misinformation as they strive to provide accurate and actionable information to their communities.

You can help boost the “immune system” of your audience

Take advantage of your scientific training by modeling and promoting critical thinking skills for your audience. Encourage your audience to evaluate evidence and analyze their sources of information; promoting a critical mindset is a real public service.

Make sure your audience understands the limitations and uncertainty around the numbers in the news. For example, people are comparing the preparedness of different countries based on death rate and how it diverges from the global number. “Globally, about 3.4% of reported COVID-19 cases have died,” according to the WHO. That death rate is being repeated as if it were a settled fact, but there’s more complexity to that number. Let’s zoom in on the word “reported:” the issue is that we don’t really know the denominator because they are only using laboratory-confirmed cases. As we know, in many countries, it’s hard to get tested right now. So if people say that in their region there are few cases, encourage them to consider how many people have been tested, and what the screening criteria are. Consider the difference between a wide screen (such as in South Korea) and a focused screen of suspected cases (such as Biogen conference attendees).

Another example of numbers that need careful interpretation is testing capacity. We often hear about the number of specimens that can be processed with a given kit, but the real number we should care about is how many people can be tested. Labs may run two specimens per patient to double-check the result; kit materials may also be consumed by set-up and control tests. Altogether, that reduces the number of patients testable to less than half a kit’s capacity. By unpacking numbers like these, you can guide your audience to better understanding of what’s medically possible.

A final “immune-boosting” strategy is to provide your audience with expert-approved actions they can take now to help prevent the spread of the virus. Uncertainty makes people uncomfortable and so, more vulnerable to confident-sounding misinformation. Blaming bad actions in the past makes people feel helpless, and the future is totally uncertain—but providing concrete guidance for what to do now both gives people a sense of control and promotes positive action.

Avoid amplifying misinformation

Repetition makes misinformation feel more true (something called the illusory truth effect, empirically studied), so avoid publicly debunking a fringe theory unless it has gotten significant attention.

However, if a rumor has been shared by an influencer or verified account, is circulating across multiple social media platforms, or has reached major media outlets, it may be time to take action and debunk. One effective debunking tool is a well-crafted headline, given that many people don’t read more deeply than a headline and will simply retweet. Here are some strategies based on newsrooms’ suggested criteria for tailoring headlines for different platforms:

  • For social media headlines, consider that audiences may not have heard the rumor before, so state the correction without repeating the rumor itself. Consider the “truth sandwich” technique: Start with the truth, indicate the lie (without using the specific language of the lie), and then return to the truth. You can also provide a reason for why the falsehood has been spreading: where it came from, why someone is promoting it, or why people might want to believe it so widely. Explaining this rationale makes your debunking more emotionally effective because people don’t like to hear, “This thing you may have seen and briefly believed is actually wrong.”
  • For headlines found via search engines (such as Google, Bing or even YouTube), the fact that audiences searched for specific keywords means they have already heard the rumor, so avoiding amplification is less of a concern. Instead, your goal is to educate readers who are trying to learn more about the rumor—before misinformation purveyors and fear-mongerers can reach them. Try to make your content easy to find by including keywords from the rumor in your headline, while making it clear that your article is debunking.

As the pandemic continues, we can all help to protect our communities through responsible engagement. We have a duty not only to clearly communicate reliable information, but also to promote fact-checking and critical thinking.

Start by doing what’s necessary; then do what’s possible; and suddenly you are doing the impossible. – Francis of Assisi

Change people’s understanding, change their behavior, and we can help to change the course of the pandemic.

Helpful fact-checking initiatives

Read the rest of the Communication Lab’s COVID-19 blog series