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I’m a Psychologist Who Specializes in Social Media Behavior—Here’s What to Do When You Spot Fake News About COVID-19

Kells McPhillips

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Anytime something unprecedented hits the news cycle, social media feeds tend to become a free for all. Yes, Instagram and Facebook can play host to compassionate conversation and connection in a socially-distancing world, but they can also become breeding grounds for fake news. But before you decide to play digital hall monitor and call out your sister-in-law/third cousin/hairstylist for perpetuating COVID-19 myths, there a few key things to consider both for your own mental health—and the mental health of the person on the other side of your message.

Chrysalis Wright, PhD, a psychology professor at the University of Central Florida who specializes in social media behavior, says that fake news is always dangerous—but that’s especially true when people’s health and well-being are at risk. “Fake news is problematic in general because many times people aren’t able to identify false information and may share false information via social media without even realizing it,” she says. “To them, they are just sharing information with their friend’s information that they think is important.”

“Fake news is problematic in general because many times people aren’t able to identify false information and may share false information via social media without even realizing it.” —Chrysalis Wright, PhD

As an example, Dr. Wright remembers a post going viral on Facebook recently, which pictured a dry-erase board filled with information about COVID-19. The information compared COVID-19 to previous epidemics and highlighted the time period of each one, along with elections that took place in the United States. “The post claimed the picture had been taken of the dry erase board at a medical doctor’s office,” says Dr. Wright. “Just using common sense, those who saw this post should be able to tell that something is amiss. How many dry erase boards have you encountered at medical doctors’ offices that contain messages to their patients? That is one clue that something is wrong about the post and the information about the post.”

Most social media falsehoods have a hole somewhere, says Dr. Wright; it’s our job as morality-striving human beings to find it and double-check our hunches with expert resources. “When anyone encounters any news story or information on social media the first thing should do is check the source of the information, do some fact-checking on their own, and use common sense,” she says. There are so many resources to help you do this in the time of the COVID-19, including:

  1. The World Health OrganizationThe WHO’s mission is to “direct and coordinate international health within the United Nations system,” and its role is especially vital now. If the website seems overwhelming to you, you can also check out its Twitter or Instagram feeds for the most up-to-date information about COVID-19.
  2. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and PreventionEasy to navigate and read, the CDC’s coverage is so accurate that it’s updated by the second. So if you have doubts about something you’re hearing or seeing on your news feed, put it through the CDC filter before you start believing it (or playing telephone).
  3. The American Heart Association’s COVID-19 FAQThe AHA rounded up every question that’s been banging around in your head for the past few weeks and asked the CDC to answer them (talk about teamwork).

Spot COVID-19 fake news on social media? Here’s how to decide if (and how) to respond

Once you’ve done your own research to determine the facts, Dr. Wright says you have to to decide for yourself how and if you should respond to fake news on social media.  “If someone finds that the information they have seen on their social media feed is false, there are different ways that they can respond,” she says. “But they do need to keep in mind that most likely the person sharing the information believes that it is true and has not shared the information with the intent of misleading others.” That means maybe don’t be a jerk or a know-it-all when you slide into their DMs. Instead, Dr. Wright recommends the following:

option 1: report the post

“Many social media platforms, such as Facebook, have recently implemented measures to try and stop or limit the sharing of false information on their platforms,” says Dr. Wright. “Right now, it doesn’t seem that the methods Facebook is using are foolproof and may even be biased from personal perspectives, because after all, it is other people who are making the determination as to whether the information is false.” So you can report a post, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the fake news won’t get read—and passed along—while Facebook decides what to do about it.

Option 2: send a direct message to Your friend with kindness

We’ve all seen people we love battle it out on the comments section of a Facebook post, but Dr. Wright says that—you guessed it!—that tactic isn’t all that effective. “It may be more appropriate to send a private message. Private messages should avoid being accusatory and argumentative, which could make the other person defensive and dismissive of what you want to say. They should focus on the information that was shared, explain that you believe the information is false, but most importantly provide specific factual information along with the source of that information to support the notion that the information was false,” she says. Lay out the cold, hard facts, but do it with other people’s feelings in mind.

It goes without saying, but you should never repost content that you believe to be untrue (even if you’re pointing out that it’s untrue in your caption). “If you find false information on social media you should absolutely not share it in any way. That only perpetuates the dissemination of [false] information to others, even if you add a comment to your shared post highlighting that the information isn’t accurate. Sometimes that doesn’t matter because the false information usually shared is very sensational and is intended to be attention-grabbing,” says Dr. Wright.

You don’t want your desire to quell the spread of fake news to end up igniting its flame instead.

Technology is doing a lot of good in the time of COVID-19. Here’s how to use it to learn a language or play games with your friends.

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