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For the past several months, tens of millions of Americans have turned to social media for possible answers to the global coronavirus pandemic. The only problem here, of course, is that many of the social media platforms that we have begun to trust have themselves become viral breeding grounds for conspiracy theories, disinformation, misinformation and even state-sponsored propaganda. With that in mind, here’s what you need to know to inoculate yourself against coronavirus disinformation on social media.
1 – Understand the agenda of those spreading the disinformation
On social media, everyone seems to have an agenda. In other words, they have a unique point of view or narrative that they would like you, too, to share. In some cases, it’s harmless, such as when they are arguing in favor of this or that restaurant. But in other cases, it can literally be a matter of life and death. Take, for example, the public debate over vaccines – on social media, it’s possible to find very strong and opinionated voices both for and against vaccines. So when you read a social media post, be aware of the built-in narratives and biases that exist. It’s always possible to find some “trusted” source – such as a doctor or nurse – who is willing to support a particular point of view.
Moreover, many of the traditional media sources we turn to for information are themselves infected with built-in narratives and biases. The New York Times is a stellar example of this – after four years of Russia-bashing and cheerleading the whole “Russia hoax” conspiracy during the Trump presidency, the media outlet is back at it again, blaming Russia for a “long war against American science.” You see, according to the New York Times, Russia is still seeking to undermine public trust in government and sow confusion on social media. Only this time, it’s over coronavirus and not elections. And it’s not just the New York Times – CBS News was recently caught red-handed showing video footage of crowded Italian hospitals and passing it off as video footage of New York hospitals.
Other “trusted” sources to watch out for include celebrities and influencers. Under quarantine like the rest of us, they are still playing an active and sometimes unwitting role in the spread of disinformation. Just because someone is a celebrity doesn’t mean that they have the slightest idea of how a virus propagates, or whether a cloth mask is a suitable form of protection. Please, please, don’t take your medical advice from a Hollywood actor (even if they play a doctor on the big screen).
2 – Recognize how data, numbers and statistics can be used to lie
As Mark Twain once famously remarked, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics.” Put another way, statistics can be used in many different ways to paint a certain picture of reality, depending on your point of view. If you’re not willing to deep dive into how the statistics are being created, then prepare to be duped, obfuscated and even deceived. Over the past few months, we’ve been treated to a viral plague of suspect data over transmission rates, mortality rates and hospitalization rates. Some say the numbers and statistics about the coronavirus are being wildly inflated, while others say that the numbers and statistics are being wildly under-reported. If you follow CNN on social media, for example, it would be hard to ignore the fact that this once venerated New York media institution is attempting to make the coronavirus pandemic seem as scary as possible by leading off every show with death statistics.
3 – Be suspicious of unnamed sources and unsubstantiated facts
Sometimes, it feels like everyone is a potential “conspiracy theorist” on social media. It’s getting harder and harder to separate fact from fiction, no matter how fantastical some of these theories are… 5G causes coronavirus! Eating bat soup causes coronavirus! New York City is digging mass graves for coronavirus victims! No, New York City hospitals are actually empty and nurses are dancing in the hallways! Ingesting Clorox or Lysol will cure you of coronavirus! Bill Gates and the WHO are trying to create a New World Order! National guard troops in my city are the beginning of martial law in America!
The problem, of course, is that many of these conspiracy theories are based on a kernel or nugget of fact, but are then wildly driven forward with unnamed sources and unsubstantiated facts. (Or, even worse, grainy YouTube videos) Admittedly, it’s kind of spooky just how much power Bill Gates seems to have over how and when we re-open America, but that doesn’t mean he’s part of some global cabal trying to depopulate the Earth and profit from a new vaccine cure.
4 – Recognize that the goal of social media is page views and clicks
At the end of the day, social media is really no different than traditional media, in that the end goal is page views and clicks. People post content on social media to get likes, views, subscribers and, yes, financial support via YouTube super-chats and Patreon donations. Thus, there is an implicit need to make any content as click-friendly as possible. Which social media post are you going to click on – the one that says grocery stores are nearly empty and we’re all going to die of famine in two months, or the one that says grocery store shelves are basically fully stocked, except for a few items like toilet paper?
In years to come, toilet paper will likely become a social media classic – a case study of how a few social media posts seeming to document empty shelves of toilet paper were passed around from family and friends and ultimately led to panic buying around the world for a product that has nothing to do with coronavirus. Hand sanitizer, OK, this makes sense. But toilet paper???
5 – If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s probably a duck
The last piece of advice is really just common sense – if it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck and acts like a duck, it’s probably a duck. In other words, if you see a social media account with less than 100 followers that sprang up during the peak of the coronavirus and is now offering up sensational videos of events around the world, then it’s probably just clickbait.
There’s a good reason why some people are now calling this pandemic an “infodemic.” Social media disinformation is everywhere, and spreading quickly. Use these tips above to spot disinformation before you get infected and become a carrier of this disease.