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Two steps to fight the spread of misinformation during a crisis

How do you know what to believe in the face of a global pandemic?

By R. Kelly Garrett

Professor of Comunication, The Ohio State University

Know the facts

Help protect yourself and others from COVID-19 by knowing which social media claims you can trust.

How do you know what to believe in the face of a global pandemic? This is a crisis unlike anything we’ve seen in our lifetimes. Each day brings new information about the scope of the threat posed by COVID-19. The better we understand the disease, the better able we are to protect ourselves, our loved ones, and our communities. But there is so much information to sift through and absorb, and it isn’t all equally reliable. Inaccurate claims are spread, often innocently, but sometimes maliciously.

My graduate students and I have studied the flow of misinformation, including misleading health claims, for more than a decade. In that time, I’ve learned a few things that are relevant to the situation we face today.

First, it may help to understand some of the ways that our responses to novel information can break down in the face of a crisis. Humans have an amazing ability to make sense of vast quantities of information with astounding speed. To do this, we rely heavily on cognitive shortcuts, intuition, and emotion. Reason plays a role, too, but a growing number of scholars argue that it comes later in the process.

This combination, pairing fast biased processing followed by slower reasoning is immensely powerful, and it serves us well in many aspects of our lives. However, it also make us prone to certain errors. We — every one of us — see patterns where there are none, we are quick to accept “sensible” explanations with little evidence to support them, and we continue to be influenced by these unsupported explanations even after encountering evidence to the contrary. Many of these tendencies grow stronger in the face of uncertainty, anxiety, and a lack of control — exactly the circumstances we find ourselves in now.

Fortunately, the human mind is flexible. Recognizing our flaws, we have devised many ways to overcome them, protecting us from the errors we would otherwise make. I want to call your attention to a couple of habits that can help.

The first piece of advice is easy to understand. Slow down. No one likes to feel fear and uncertainty, and taking action — even clicking a button to share advice with someone else — makes us feel better. The problem is that we can accidentally cause harm by rushing if the information we act on is false. This doesn’t mean we are bad people or that we are unusually gullible. It is an inevitable part of being human. But slowing down can help us avoid this risk.

The next piece of advice is harder. Think critically, but recognize your limits. We all know the risks of blindly accepting everything we are told. This is why critical thinking is such an important skill. But we are often less attentive to the risk posed by the other extreme: the belief that with careful thought and attention, we can assess every claim for ourselves, without relying on experts. This is unrealistic and dangerous.

Thanks to the Internet, each of us can access vast quantities of information from around the globe in an instant. It is tempting to think that the best way to know what is true is to plumb these depths for ourselves. Independent thought, the argument goes, is bound to be a more reliable way of discerning the truth than trusting someone else’s word.

But understanding the threat of COVID-19 requires that we work together. We are facing a global pandemic caused by a disease about which humankind knows relatively little. We know a great deal about pandemics in general, including how to fight them, but no one individual can hope to understand every aspect of the crisis. Instead, we must hone our ability to know who and what to trust.

Expertise is one marker of trustworthiness. Experts typically have substantial knowledge about a specific set of topics. This allows them to have insights that go unnoticed by others. But recognizing expertise is not always easy. Credentials can help. For example, someone who holds a medical degree (a Doctor of Medicine or MD) has extensive training in the care and treatment of human maladies. In contrast, someone holding a PhD specializing in epidemiology knows about the spread of disease in human populations.

Both types of expertise are relevant when facing a pandemic, but they are also highly specialized. An epidemiologist is not going to find a vaccine for a novel disease, while most doctors are ill equipped to predict the trajectory of a disease through their community. And a Nobel-prize winning physicist is unlikely to have expertise in either.

Knowing that an expert made the claim is not enough, though. Just because one expert said something does not ensure that the claim represents our best understanding of the issue. Before you act on the advice in a news story or share a viral message, take a moment to see what other experts are saying on the topic.

This is where the wealth of information available online can help. Look up the expert behind the advice. Are that person’s credentials and experience correctly identified in the message? Is the person an expert in a relevant field? Does the individual work at a reputable organization? Look up the claim, too. Can you find other places where the expert makes the claim? Are other experts saying the same thing? Have any experts rejected the claim explicitly? Or is this the only place the claim has been made?

Other experts may not have evaluated claims made by just one person. This doesn’t necessarily mean the claim is wrong, but should raise a red flag. Generally speaking, you can put more stock in a claim that has been widely endorsed by many experts in the area (e.g., wash your hands often and don’t touch your face) than a claim acknowledged by few.

In practice, checking a claim before you act on it can be quick. It may take just a few minutes to see that something is widely repeated by many relevant experts. Or it can take much longer. For instance, it may take 15 minutes or more if you need to skim a handful of articles and chase down several experts’ credentials.

Fifteen minutes can feel like an eternity when you are struggling to manage the anxiety and uncertain brought on by a crisis, but it is time well spent. The last thing anyone needs right now is to spread inaccurate, and potentially dangerous, information.

This article is republished from Medium. Read the original article.

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