We’re in a serious pandemic: A virus dangerous enough to present a global threat, but not threatening enough to inspire universal caution. Therefore, we face a dual hazard from the illness itself and from our reaction to it. Some people believe that shutdowns and other mitigation efforts are over-reactions. Others warn of the danger of downplaying or dismissing the threat. Mitigation efforts are a way to reduce the impact of the virus; rejecting mitigation measures, a way to increase that impact.
How do we decide what actions to take? It depends on what we think we know. And that, in turn, depends on where and how we get our information, and how we assess its validity.
COVID-19 is a novel virus, which means it is new to our species. Before late 2019, no human had ever been infected with it, so there was no natural immunity to it anywhere in the world. By contrast, the flu has been around for thousands of years and various strains of it are in regular circulation. In any given year, many people have had some exposure to it in previous years, even decades, so might already have some immunity in place. Thus far, COVID-19 is spreading pretty much as epidemiological models for a novel virus suggested. However, final outcomes (and death tolls) are far less predictable. There are too many variables in our collective decisions, in our behavior, and in the nature of the virus. Information coming from places where it has been present longer, though, show that it is transmissible enough and deadly enough to warrant the actions taken to slow its spread. Those actions range from recommending that the public wear cloth masks to keep our exhalations in check to implementing wide-reaching stay-at-home policies, and from practicing careful hygiene to furthering research and development of potential treatments and cures.
The actions we’ve taken seem to have helped. Paradoxically, because we have reduced the spread, many people think the virus is less dangerous than feared. This is partly because information is sometimes hard to interpret, and partly because a lot of contradictory information is circulating. We are under constant assault by viral information. This is especially true in social media which is less subject to fact checking and accountability than conventional news sources.
The virus and viral (mis)information are combining to potentially deadly effect. Good information provides protection for individuals and communities; bad information can threaten that protection. We need to boost our immunity in the information sphere, also. We can reduce the spread of viral disinformation by deploying good information hygiene. Just as washing hands regularly, wearing masks, and practicing social distancing can reduce the spread of infection, deploying best practices in our media environment can reduce the spread of misinformation.
Viral misinformation is all around us. Our social media ecosystems don’t have many defenses against it—no editors, no fact-checkers. In addition, people react differently in the face of serious uncertainty. Some remain open to and eager for new information, while others focus on things they know, and assertions (true or false) they agree with or want to believe. Under these stressful circumstances when we seem to have no control over our lives, wishful thinking and conspiracy theories can flourish.
Practicing information hygiene can help us avoid being taken in by viral misinformation, which will also help us maintain our mental health. We need to be conscientious about using dependable sources to obtain reliable information. One strategy offered by a digital information literacy expert at the University of Washington, which can help us in this, is to SIFT:
S – Stop, resist being swept up by new information just because it gives voice to your fears or hopes.
I – Investigate the source of the information. If it isn’t familiar, look it up.
F – Find corroboration. Even dubious sources sometimes share good information. Look for confirmation of that information on other reliable sites.
T – Trace content back to original sources.
It’s also a good idea to return to the issue in the following days. By then you may see it on fact check sites. You may come across more solid reporting which would be far more beneficial to boost. Share that instead!
Samantha Pearson is a volunteer with the HUB for Progress and Active Community Training.