As COVID-19 misinformation continues to spread, experts say many people who are sharing it don’t realize the harm they could be doing to others.
It’s not always easy to differentiate between what’s true and what’s not, especially on social media.
It’s exactly what Sally Baalbaki-Yassine teaches her students at Metropolitan State University in Denver to pause before believing everything seen online because there are algorithms in place specifically directing that information at specific audiences.
“My biggest thing is teaching them to always be skeptical of what they see on social media. You just can’t trust everything — to be able to go past this overconfidence bias that we all have," Baalbaki-Yassine said. “We’ve given them permission to do that, right? Where we have agreed to all of these things that we don’t necessarily read that say they can track everything we do on the social media platform, and they are using algorithms from like Siri for example, listening to what we say.”
Unlike disinformation, misinformation isn’t intended to mislead others, but it still can.
“So, if you’re already getting controversial information on other forms, that’s an easy way for a social media platform to be like, 'OK, this person is already absorbing this kind of information, let's give them more of this information,'" Baalbaki-Yassine said.
Anything each individual sees on social media has been purposely generated to get in front of their eyes.
“What you’re researching, even on Facebook, and who you’re following on Facebook will affect what kind of information you see in your news feed, and then if you like certain things that your friends put on Facebook, then you’ll start getting that kind of information to show up as well," Baalbaki-Yassine said.
Experts say when people are hungry for certainty and clarity, they can become more vulnerable to misinformation.
Jennifer Reich is a professor of sociology and explains it’s only natural for humans to want to feel the information they are getting is a guaranteed safety net. But that’s not the case with science because there are always new discoveries.
“It’s important noting that when people lack official information that’s clear and trustworthy, they go to informal information, and it’s not exceptional. Most of us listen to our friends, our family, people we think reflect our values and lifestyle, the people we trust," Reich said. “And so, that level of uncertainty that surrounds us feels scary and it feels like it’s not trustworthy, and the challenge is that just because we don’t know everything, it doesn’t mean we don’t know anything. You know, science is constantly refining and learning, and we’ve seen this with vaccines in the past.”
Researchers with the World Health Organization say there were at least 800 global deaths due to misinformation related to COVID-19 within the first three months of 2020.
“So, there’s a constant process of learning and refining, but living through that process can be really anxiety-provoking, and those are the opportunities where official information can feel uncertain and people look for other kinds of information," Reich said. “One of the traits with misinformation is it’s often stated with great certainty, and that’s kind of a flag when there is no room to say from what we know now as we’re learning, right? The kind of things we would expect a scientific process to unfold.”
Reich says that’s why so much misinformation has come out surrounding COVID-19 and the vaccine. As things are discovered, original information can be changed and more people become skeptical.
“And it’s not that it’s all true or untrue, but often it’s competing information. So, there might be something that was shown to be true, and then it’s evolved in a way that doesn’t work scientifically and we’ve learned new things, but that becomes hard to challenge, hard to kill in a lot of ways and it’s still shared," Reich said.
Baalbaki-Yassine and Reich say self-educating is one of the best favors you can do for yourself. Sharing, on the other hand, has larger implications than you may realize.
“So, educating them and helping them understand, giving them digital literacy of it’s not the end all be all, and you should be always skeptical, do your research and don’t share it," Baalbaki-Yassine said.