Over the past few weeks, health professionals and government officials have been providing the public with information about COVID-19. However, users on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and WhatsApp have also fueled the saturated online forum by posting and re-tweeting themselves. Although social media has largely been used by healthcare professionals to encourage hand washing and social distancing, it has also become a nesting ground of false information. The World Health Organization has termed this outbreak of unverified content an ‘infodemic,’ which is “an overabundance of information—some accurate and some not—that makes it hard for people to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance when they need it.”
The most dangerous aspects of the misinformation circulating on social media are the false cures and supposed COVID-19 prevention methods. One WhatsApp user forwarded an email alleged to have been sent by staff at St George’s Hospital in London. The email claimed that consuming hot drinks “abundantly during the day” and taking “a sip of water at least every 15 minutes” would safeguard individuals from COVID-19.
In a virtual interview with The Medium, UTM sociology professor Dr. Shyon Baumann explained why social media has become a hot spot for false information. To understand the role of social media, we have to first understand conventional news media. Traditionally, “content is produced by specialized firms—such as radio stations, television studios, film studios, and newspapers.” These firms are known for credibility and employ professional editors to serve as gatekeepers against misleading content. The internet, however, introduced what Baumann calls “the blurring of media sources” and enabled the spread of information that has not been verified.
Social media, in particular, differs from conventional news media as its content is “user-generated.” It provides individuals who may not be qualified to advise others, about biology and health among various other topics, a platform to do so. “All users can repost and share any information they come across,” giving any information posted the potential to go viral. A key component to the spread of misinformation online is the inability to locate its original source which eliminates accountability.
Baumann also explains why it is so easy for people to believe the false information on social media. Most social media users do not have the journalistic skills, time, or resources to fact-check information or verify its accuracy. Above all, “people are biased towards believing information that confirms [their] ideas or beliefs” and they create echo chambers by following pages, entering chats, and liking the posts of those with similar beliefs. In other words, “social media works as a network” and “when people in your network post information, it is likely to appeal to you and to appear as credible.”
Fortunately, amid the infodemic, many social media platforms such as WhatsApp, have partnered with the World Health Organization to combat the spread of misinformation by providing official updates in real time. BBC journalists Olga Robinson and Marianna Spring suggest that social media users employ a three-question approach before sharing information. First, ask yourself, “does the source of the information seem vague or seem to be from a friend of a friend you can’t trace?” If you cannot trace the original source of the post, it’s best not to send it to others. Second, “does all of the information seem true?” It is easy to believe the entirety of a post if one or two points are undoubtedly accurate. However, do not share lengthy posts unless all the information appears verified. Last, ask yourself whether “the content make you emotional—happy, angry, or scared?” Misinformation normally goes viral because it plays with our emotions. Feeling either overwhelmingly hopeful or scared should be a red flag that encourages you to dig deeper into the source of the post.
During a time when people are staying home and using social media more frequently, it is important to ensure that the information you receive from group chats is factually accurate. Credible sources have information and advice that can help keep you safe, whereas unverified social media posts may contain information that can put you at risk.