Science Says Sunday – How to Spot Misinformation

Many of you may not be old enough to remember when myths would go viral via email. Inevitably it would be a super long email, with poor grammar and formatting. Viral misinformation has become far more sophisticated as popularity for social media has grown. EVERY SINGLE DAY I get messages asking if the latest video on Tik Tok/Instagram/YouTube is true, or if the Facebook post someone shared is also true. Anyone can start a blog and share whatever is on their mind that day. There is inevitably a great deal of misinformation on Instagram too. More and more people are sharing non-factual information, especially as people have noticed that sharing COVID-19 information leads to growth in numbers. To some, fame – even if it’s just social media fame – can be quite alluring.

So, what’s a person to do when the onslaught of factual information is mixed in with non-factual information?? It can be tough. Especially when it’s about a topic we might not be too familiar with (eg, the latest is whether viral mutations will affect vaccine effectiveness. Short answer is…we don’t yet know. Stay tuned.)

So, how do you identify misinformation? Science and experts say:

  1. Consider the source
    1. Are you familiar with this source?
    2. Is it legitimate?
    3. Has it been reliable in the past?
  2. Read beyond the headlines
    1. Sometimes headlines are pretty compelling. They want you to click on the link and read the article, but sometimes the headline alone doesn’t tell the whole story. Sometimes the story is completely opposite of what’s suggested in the headline!
    2. If a headline is interesting, read the article, check #1 above, then decide whether or not you should share. In this case, sharing does not always mean caring. Sharing may mean you are contributing to the problem.
  3. Verify who the author is
    1. What credentials do they have? Are they experts in the topic? Are they really affiliated with the institution they say they are affiliated with? If they are affiliated with a big-name institution, are they qualified to speak on the topic?
  4. Is there support for the claim?
    1. Some viral rumors or myths originate from blog/Facebook or other social media posts. Some originate from extreme-leaning websites, with faulty sources. Is there support for the claim from both sides of the aisle? Make sure you also check the sources cited by the author. Sometimes the sources sound official, but they’re actually made up! I mean, how do people do these things?!
  5. Check the date of the story. 

I can’t tell you how many people have shared articles that were written years ago. As they say “old news”. Sometimes the claims are not at all relevant to current events.

  1. Is it meant to be funny or even satire? 

The Onion is notorious for sharing satirical stories, but sometimes people share them thinking they are real. For an explainer on satire, check out this video from Oregon State University

  1. Check your bias. 

We’re all guilty of it, especially confirmation bias. Confirmation bias is the tendency to believe or favor an idea or information that confirms what we believe. Sometimes it’s super subtle. We’ve seen confirmation bias played out in topics like how many deaths are actually due to COVID-19, but also more hotly debated topics like school reopenings and whether kids can get and transmit SARS-CoV-2.

  1. What other stories have been posted about the topic? What are their conclusions? Do they seem real or feasible?
  2. Check with the experts. 

Debunking all these myths, rumors, and pieces of misinformation can take a lot of time. It’s super easy to simply click ‘share’ and be done with it. BUT, in order for us to make progress in this pandemic, or whatever other topic is susceptible to misinformation, we need to work together to share factual information. Conspiracy theories abound and have been a source of misinformation for centuries. Let’s all do our part to tease apart the sensational from that which will help us all make progress and ensure better lives for all at stake. Some examples of well-established fact-checkers include:

Factcheck.org

Snopes.com

Washington Post Fact Checker

Politifact.com

Fact-checking scientific claims is a bit harder. For example, just because you found an article on Pubmed, does not make your claim fact. There are several layers to reaching causal inference about a topic (eg smoking causes lung cancer) beyond finding a paper on pubmed that says so. In epidemiology, we use a number of criteria and metrics to determine whether something causes something else. Among them are Hill’s Criteria for Causality, mathematical and epidemiologic analytical tools (eg diacyclic graphs), counterfactual analyses, and much more. A lot of analyses and shoe-leather epidemiology had to happen in order to determine that SARS-COV-2 causes COVID-19. And still, we don’t fully understand why some people become sicker than others, for example. That’s something many of us continue to study. So before you make a claim or assert something as fact, know that there is a lot of work that must go into backing up your claim, beyond citing a single article or blog post, but especially the latest viral Facebook or Tik Tok post. 

I found three awesome fact-checking websites you may consider perusing when you have some time. 

Video: How to Spot Fake News

Overcoming confirmation bias during COVID-19

Dr. Murray’s Causal Lab

We’re all tired and especially tired of the pandemic. At this point, we’re all a lot more susceptible to cognitive bias than we have, maybe ever before. But before sharing that next article or social media post, do a bit of the leg work described above. If you can, help stop the misinformation train and help scientists and others dedicate much needed time to advancing scientific discovery rather than having to debunk yet another viral misinformation claim.

Please and thank you.

Be safe and be well! Happy Holidays!

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