As local newsrooms shrink, crumble and even close during the coronavirus economic freeze-up, it’s time to sanitize your inbox so that that you don’t fill the information void with a parallel contagion: misinformation.

Attend a free online town hall: “Surviving the Coronavirus Infodemic” from 4 to 5 p.m., Thursday to discuss ways to counter disinformation and misinformation about the pandemic. The event is hosted by the Center for an Informed Public (CIP),  a collaboration between the University of Washington and Washington State University.

The universities tackle the problem at a time when Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other social media companies are scrambling to slow the spread of false messages about coronavirus. The World Health Organization says that is part of an “infodemic.”

Journalism isn’t perfect, but journalists want to get facts right. Because truth-seeking and accountability are core values, professional reporters are more responsive to challenges when they make mistakes, unlike the quasi- and fully anonymous bad actors of social media.

UW researchers are now finding that potentially dangerous misinformation about coronavirus is spreading globally in almost-undetectable text messages and chain emails. “We’re hearing from our colleagues,” said Jevin West, CIP director. “We’re also seeing it, personally, in email chains. …The old-fashioned email chains like from the 1990s,” West said.

In the research center, West said a falsehood he’s tracking cites a (nonexistent) Stanford University study that purports to show you can test yourself for COVID-19 by holding your breath for 10 seconds. (Reminder: There’s no such study and no such home test.)

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West says texts and emails are fertile territory because they are private, while social media posts are public enough to be spotted and challenged.

By now, you’ve likely seen at least one of these emails or text messages from a friend or family member: “Check out what my friend’s friend, a retired virologist, says about coronavirus,” or “READ THIS. My super-smart friend, who has a PhD (in math) forwarded this excellent piece about COVID-19.” If you’re lucky, it’s all true. But if you’re not, social science has long found we are more likely to believe information when it comes from friends and family.

No offense to your smart friends’ friends, but West says even well-meaning chain emails often get diluted with junk, while others start out full of hooey and get worse as they are passed along person-to-person.

“This is not tricking people who are just starting to learn to use the internet,” West said. “These are professionals who are passing this along.” West was shown the made-up, “Stanford” email by a colleague whose wife is a pulmonary doctor and received it through her network of professional colleagues and friends.”

“She was like ‘Whoa! Whoa! Whoa! Whoa!,'” West said. “ She wasn’t spreading it because she believed it, but it had gotten all the way to the pulmonary doctor. They stopped it.”

West said a center colleague, biologist Carl Bergstrom, has been staying up “all night long” during the pandemic, debunking bad science, pseudo science and nonsense circulating online.

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In Ireland, Prime Minister Leo Varadkar took to Twitter on March 16 to flush coronavirus trash out of private messaging. “I am urging everyone to please stop sharing unverified info on WhatsApp groups,” he wrote. “These messages are scaring and confusing people and causing real damage. Please get your info from official, trusted sources.”

Prevalent in Ireland was the false claim that gargling with warm water would kill coronavirus.

West said he is glad email and text messages are private, but that’s what makes them the perfect place to spread nonsense like the non-existent hold-your-breath study.

It gets really interesting when it starts jumping platforms. The biological analogy to all this is when you have species jumps of viral particles. — UW Researcher Jevin West

“We’ve been tracking that one in social media and its email form,” he said. “It gets really interesting when it starts jumping platforms. The biological analogy to all this is when you have species jumps of viral particles.”

West and his colleagues have since January collected more than 200 million tweets, coronavirus hashtag search trends and other markers in which they can see false reports of illness and false information about countermeasures and cures.

In the coming weeks, he said the Center will release comprehensive data on about 10 “superviral rumors.”

In Tweets like this one, Carl Bergstrom of the Center for an Informed Public at the University of Washington challenges misinformation and disinformation about coronavirus that the Center’s online surveillance unearths.
In Tweets like this one, Carl Bergstrom of the Center for an Informed Public at the University of Washington challenges misinformation and disinformation about coronavirus that the Center’s online surveillance unearths.

World Health Organization "infodemic"

World Health Organization declares a parallel "infodemic"

As the COVID-19 epidemic ramped up, The World Health Organization in February declared it had assigned multiple teams to fight what it called an "infodemic" which the public health organization described as "an over-abundance of information – some accurate and some not – that makes it hard for people to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance when they need it.”