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Misinformation Around The Coronavirus


This being the digital age, news about the coronavirus and misinformation about the outbreak are spreading nearly as fast as the virus itself. For instance, fake tips on how to prevent or even cure coronavirus have gone viral and so have hoaxes aimed at spreading confusion. Peter Adams is one of the people trying to combat the misinformation through education. He's with the News Literacy Project. That's a nonprofit that seeks to give the public, especially students but the broader public as well, the skills they need to separate fact from fiction at a time like this. Peter Adams, welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.

PETER ADAMS: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: So, first of all, what kind of misinformation are you seeing out there?

ADAMS: All sorts. This pandemic has brought out a really clear picture of the kinds of things that tend to circulate in the misinformation ecosystem, generally, just more intensified and, obviously, with higher stakes so everything from miracle cures and alternative medicine recommendations - some of which are dangerous, most of which are completely ineffective - to anti-vaccination activists using this to push their agenda and their falsehoods, conspiracy theorists jumping in, some disinformation agents and online trolls doing their thing.

And then a lot of opportunists - people posing as doctors, people trying to drive up engagement on accounts that they can then use for other purposes. And the biggest factor is, actually, really well-intentioned ordinary, everyday people who are trying to make sense of this in a time of great uncertainty. And there's a lot of public fear, so people are very motivated to share things. But we're doing so a little too recklessly.

MARTIN: What are some of the techniques that people are using to spread this information?

ADAMS: A lot of what we're seeing is actually, you know, what you would call a kind of cheap fake or a low-tech fake, just copied and pasted claims online going viral across platforms. And things are making the jump, you know, from WhatsApp over to Twitter and Facebook much like the virus itself, just sort of leaping borders. But we're seeing just a lot of text-based claims with - this person is in a position of authority, you know? My sister-in-law works with a man who's married to someone at the CDC who says, right? So this sort of second and thirdhand totally anonymous information just gets copied and pasted over and over and over again across these platforms.

And I think that's - the number one thing people have to look out for is the source, if they can't tell what the source of the information is, to just disregard it and to go to a verified authoritative source. The equivalent of taking 20 seconds in washing your hands is very much the same in the information space, where if you take 20 seconds, investigate the source, do a quick Google search, stay skeptical, we can eliminate a great deal of the confusion of misinformation out there.

MARTIN: You also said in - one of the things on your site says beware of emotions, like fear and disgust. Talk about that if you - what does that mean?

ADAMS: You know, most misinformation has a strong emotional effect on us. And that can kind of override our rational minds. So if we're intensely angry or we're intensely fearful, that can cause us to share things more quickly with less caution and cause us to kind of short-circuit our critical thinking and not scrutinize the information that we're seeing.

So one important step is for people to just pause, take a breath, track their emotions, realize if they're feeling something and then take a deeper look and say - how does this person or how does - how is this piece of information sourced? Where did this claim come from? Is it linked to something that I can trace back and get to an authoritative source? Or is it mere hearsay, or is it second- or thirdhand information?

MARTIN: I mean, one of the phrases that you used that I like is that you said that we need to improve information hygiene - right? - that since ordinary folks are the vectors, they're the spreaders. We need to improve our information hygiene just like we need to improve our physical hygiene, you know, practices.

But that can be challenging. I mean, even the president has given out wrong information during his speeches this week or information that later had to be corrected or clarified by people. So are there a couple of primary sources that you think people should look to first?

ADAMS: Sure, you know, global health authorities like the Centers for Disease Control, the World Health Organization. Johns Hopkins University has a great tracker map online. The Federation of American scientists have put together a very good website with latest global and national news. And then your local health authorities obviously are very important to know what's going on on a local level.

MARTIN: Peter Adams is senior vice president for education for the News Literacy Project. Peter Adams, thank you so much.

ADAMS: Thank you, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.