Healthy Body

How To Vet New Information on COVID-19—Because There’s a Lot of Fake News Out There

Kells McPhillips

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Photo: Getty Images/Justin Paget

Google “COVID-19” and you’ll be met with over 6 billion results. In the six months since the outbreak first began, the novel coronavirus has infected 11.4 million people and taken 534,000 lives globally, making it a critical problem. But we’ve only known about this disease’s existence for half a year—meaning that even the experts are learning as they go in preventing and treating the disease. As a result, studies, open letters to the public from doctors, and dangerous conjecture alike have spread like wildfire amongst the general public as people try to get a grips on this crisis. But in sifting through hundreds of news stories, memes, Facebook posts, podcasts, and more, it’s increasingly difficult to know what COVID-19 information is real—and how to tell pandemic fact from fiction.

Chrysalis Wright, PhD, a psychology professor at the University of Central Florida who specializes in media behavior, says to make no mistake: How you vet COVID-19 information could be the difference in contracting the virus and staying well. “Fake news related to COVID-19 is dangerous. It can literally be a life or death situation right now,” says Dr. Wright. “If people believe false claims related to preventing or treating COVID-19, they may stop taking measures recommended by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that are aimed at reducing the spread of the virus and flattening the curve.”

One devastating example, she says, happened when a couple in Arizona who took a chemical called chloroquine phosphate after President Donald Trump falsely called it and its variant Hydroxychloroquine (which is normally only prescribed to those with autoimmune disorders such as lupus or rheumatoid arthritis) a potential “game-changer” for combatting the virus. “This led to not only hospitalization but also death,” Dr. Wright explains. To boot, it could lead to shortages of the drug for people who truly need it.

The lesson here is plain and simple: Not doing your research on COVID-19 claims initially may cause a harmful—or even deadly—domino effect for you and those in your inner circle. “Believing fake news can make people distrust factual news stories from reputable sources and distrust scientific information. It can lead to confusion over what is actually true and false and can lead to skepticism regarding our government and health care system,” says Dr. Wright.

There are some new social media features that aim to make it a bit easier to vet info. Messaging platform WhatsApp just launched a new fact-checking feature that lets you search info shared in forwarded messages, while in May, Twitter rolled out fact-checking labels on certain tweets (including those from the President) that contain misinformation. There are also apps like Newstrition that automatically help you vet claims in news stories and elsewhere. But in general, the web tends to be the wild wild west of information—particularly when it comes to COVID-19. Below, Dr. Wright shares five steps to take every single time a new tidbit about COVID-19 (whether it’s a news story, a tweet from a government official, or a meme shared by a rando from high school) pops into your feed.

The 5 steps you need to determine what COVID-19 information is real

1. Be extremely skeptical of any source that calls COVID-19 a “hoax” or insinuates that it’s not “serious.”

“This virus is not a conspiracy. It is not a hoax. It is not political. This virus is real, dangerous, and can be deadly,” says Dr. Wright. “Treating the virus as nothing to be concerned about due to believing fake news prolongs the virus and measures to contain it and extends in both duration and distance the need for precautions to prevent the spread of the virus.” Any article, tweet, or, yes, presidential press conference that tells you the virus is NBD should immediately send off warning bells in your mind.

2. Find the source. Find the source. Find the source.

Social media has a way of watering down cold-hard facts through memes and captions that make tracking down the original source a difficult task. According to Dr. Wright, though, it’s still worth your while. “One of the main things to look for is the source of the information. This can be tricky, especially on social media where ‘friends’ like and share information that has come across their feed. We are also presented with information on social media based on our previous usage and clicking patterns. For COVID-19 information, we need to make sure that the source is a reputable news source, the World Health Organization (WHO), or CDC,” says Dr. Wright.

3. If you’re reading about a study, consider who’s the author? Who’s the institution? Who participated? 

Studies can be tough to read if you don’t have a science background, but there are a few key questions you can ask yourself about studies (or reports on studies) to help you better assess the information that’s being presented.

First of all, identify who authored the study and vet their credentials. Who conducted the research you’re currently reading about speaks directly to how seriously you should take it. Do they have a PhD? An MD? Are they a researcher? “Research on COVID-19, how it spreads, its symptoms, its progression, and possible treatments are all important,” Dr. Wright says. “Research on the virus should be conducted by infectious disease experts and specialists, medical professionals, and disease experts who have expertise in rare diseases.”

Next, consider who paid for the research? How many people were involved in the study? Research that involves a diverse pool of thousands of participants should mean more to you than a tiny study done on a homogenous population, says Dr. Wright. Right now because COVID-19 is so new, most of the research on its symptoms and other effects have been done on small groups of people (such as on doctors in a few hospitals in Wuhan, China). This doesn’t automatically mean that this is bad science; just take these studies’ findings with a grain of salt—and don’t assume they’re conclusive just yet.

Lastly, look at who published the study, because that matters too. “There are several online so-called academic journals that are basically scam journals. These are journals that provide articles free to read for consumers but charge researchers and authors high publishing fees. There are few reputable journals that charge researchers and authors a publishing fee. Making sure that the studies you are reading come from a reputable journal is one key thing to look for,” says Dr. Wright.

The gold standard is for research to be published in a peer-reviewed journal, meaning that other experts looked over the study to vet its methods, accuracy, and conclusions. (Examples of peer-reviewed journals include the American Journal of Medicine and JAMA Network, which publishes 11 specific medical journals.) MIT also just launched an open-access journal that only includes studies their editorial team has personally reviewed for accuracy to help people better vet research that’s coming out about COVID-19. Be wary of research that is pre-print (meaning it hasn’t been reviewed or published yet) or research that’s being published in a journal that doesn’t do reviews.

4. Consider that you’re reading an article with an angle that doesn’t necessarily offer all the information on the topic.

As journalists, we write stories through “angles” or through specific lenses that allow us to offer up bite-sized servings of information that you can take away with you when you’re done reading. Remembering that while you’re reading can help you understand that, while what you’re reading is one slice of the story, it’s usually not the full story.  “When a news piece provides coverage regarding a recent research article, it is important to remember that the news is covering small pieces of the study,” says Dr. Wright. “Sometimes, they can cover it incorrectly. Journalists and news reporters are not researchers or scientists.”

When you’re reading a journalist’s interpretation of a study, check to see if they interviewed a medical professional. Did they link back to the original study? And, if you read the study yourself, would your understanding align with what they wrote? Reading an article shouldn’t be a dead-end; it should be step one.

5. Beware the viral meme.

“Try to avoid information that is shared on social media via memes, sensational posts, or whose content seems extreme. Posts with sensational headlines or stories are likely false because they tend to distort the facts and can be quite deceptive,” says Dr. Wright. Before you share that quote, stat, or advice, go back to step two to find the source and the full story behind it. “Fake news on social media is particularly hard to identify but with effort in identifying fake news when you see it and fact-checking skills you can make sure the information you have is accurate,” adds Dr. Wright. If it’s coming from a source that doesn’t have any legit credentials, seems to wildly contradict existing health advice, downplays the pandemic, or is misrepresenting a study, it’s not worth sharing (or believing).

This story was originally published on July 7, 2020. It was updated on August 4, 2020. 

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