Public health researchers at Jefferson recommend ways to avoid misinformation during the COVID19 pandemic, like seeking out trusted sources, local updates, and cross-checked information
“The virus was developed in a lab as a biochemical weapon”
“Wash your hands in the hottest water you can stand”
“Martial law may be around the corner”
With the daily onslaught of news about the novel coronavirus and a contagious increase in fear and panic, we’ve become more susceptible to false information. Even worse, with the ease of sharing information on social media, we can sometimes unwittingly perpetuate misinformation, exacerbating the problem.
We talked to experts in public health and health communication at Jefferson about how both the general public and health officials can combat the spread of misinformation, which is slowly turning into a pandemic of its own.
Arm yourself with the facts from trusted sources
Rosemary Frasso, PhD, CPH, director of Jefferson’s public health program, recommends national resources like the CDC and NIH for the most up to date information about symptoms, transmission, and protective measures.
“The CDC is doing a wonderful job with translating the science into lay messaging,” Dr. Frasso says. “They also have very clear instructions on who needs PPE and how to use it correctly. It is important to remember that people who aren’t used to wearing gloves or masks might need some training so that they do not put themselves at risk. Touching your face to adjust a mask with soiled gloves is problematic.”
“In general, the most accurate information will come from health care professionals or a health professional organization,” says Amy Leader, DrPH, MPH. “They are also least likely to exaggerate or politicize a claim and focus on facts and data.” She recommends the John Hopkins tracking website as one of the most accurate displays of data for numbers of cases and the virus’ spread. Anyone can use it to see how and where the disease is spreading in near real time.
“While it’s important to know what’s going on at a federal or national level, it’s also important to pay attention to your state and local news,” says Amy Henderson Riley, DrPH, MCHES. “The nightly news is great, but what’s going on in Idaho or Michigan might be very different from what’s going on in your state.”
For example, for updates on what’s happening in Pennsylvania, Dr. Riley recommends signing up for email updates from your county (text COVID19 to 888-777) and watching the mayor’s and governor’s briefings when you can.
Dr. Leader also recommends listening to health care professionals who are in leadership positions for their city or state. “The PA Secretary of Health is a physician, the Commissioner of Health for Philadelphia is a physician, and the Commissioner of Health for NJ is a nurse. These are trusted sources.”
Check, and double-check, before sharing
With one click of a button, false information can spread like wildfire on social media. “Messages on social media have a long life and can be shared an infinite number of times,” cautions Dr. Leader. “It’s important to pause and take the time to check the veracity of the post or article.”
“As we teach our public health students, it is important to check the original source of information,” says Dr. Riley. “So, if you see something posted on social media, return to the original poster to determine the source of the information and the person or organization’s qualifications.”
Dr. Frasso also recommends making sure that any scientific claim about the virus has a citation that links to an original research publication or a public health source like the CDC. “If you see something that claims something like – “The number of cases has tripled in a given time frame” – you should cross-check this with your trusted sources before sharing any post or article.”
“Cross-checking is especially important when sharing anything about prevention or cures,” says Dr. Riley. One example that received a lot of attention is the silver colloidal solution sold by a televangelist, who up until recently claimed it could cure COVID-19, with no evidence. “Hawking fake products is not only harmful and dangerous, but also against the law.”
Beware of tell-tale signs of false information
“Information that doesn’t include the credibility of the source (professional degrees, agency of employment) should be treated with a grain of salt,” says Dr. Leader. Any site or media that asks you to pay or sign up for something should also be avoided. In emergency situations, like with coronavirus, information from credible sources is often free and easily accessible to the public. “I’ve noticed that many large newspapers that usually restrict some content to paid subscribers are allowing all of their coronavirus coverage to be accessed free of charge.” Avoid reading or sharing posts that rely on fear-baiting or are overtly politicized.
Accept that “change is the only constant”
“I feel like I’ve started out the day having read a piece of information, and by lunch, it’s changed,” says Dr. Frasso. “I think for readers not to get overwhelmed with this changing information, public health experts have to be really overt about the fact things are evolving very rapidly.”“People should adopt the mantra of ‘change is the only constant’ right now,” adds Dr. Riley, “And be open to new rules and new situations. Not because what we did yesterday was wrong, but what we did yesterday was correct based on what we knew yesterday. Today is a new day.”
Be realistic, but hopeful
“This is a time for scientists, clinicians, and public health experts to be as approachable as possible,” says Dr. Leader. “When people are scared or are in a time of crisis, they’re looking for quick responses and solutions. We have to offer hope while being realistic.”
“People are desperately seeking the light at the end of the tunnel,” says Dr. Riley. “I think it’s important to remind people of protocols and measures that have paid off in other countries and that we’re seeing real improvements, like Wu-Han in China.”
“Scientific evidence and facts are our greatest allies right now,” says Dr. Frasso. “I tell my students– spread the science, not the virus – I think this should be society’s motto right now during these unprecedented times.”