Going Viral: COVID-19 and the Internet

By Melissa Jones, PhD Jun 02, 2020

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Anyone who’s been in the hospital as a patient or family member knows that nurses translate difficult information into reliable advice.

Anyone who’s been in the hospital as a patient or family member knows that nurses translate difficult information into reliable advice. That skill is especially needed now, when confusing or downright false information is spreading as fast as COVID-19.

Misinformation can be sophisticated and difficult to spot. It takes extra work to sift out the truth, so here are two items that might help you ensure information you share is fact based:

  • University librarian Sarah Blakeslee created a mnemonic to help evaluate information based on its Currency, Relevance, Authority, Accuracy and Purpose. She called it The CRAAP Test.
  • There is also a helpful and funny guide from librarian KT Lowe. It provides a deeper dive on fact-checking and critical thinking.

Here are a few more questions to ask yourself before passing information on to others:

  • Would you be comfortable sharing this source in an academic paper or news article with your name on it? When you share information, you become associated with that information.
  • Has the information been peer reviewed? Even if it was, check the quality of the publication. There are predatory publishers out there that mostly operate as open-access online “journals.” They do shoddy peer review simply to get the publishing fees from authors. See Shawn Kennedy’s editorial in the American Journal of Nursing, “Predatory Publishing Is No Joke.”

Although the internet is full of misinformation and propaganda, it is also a great investigative tool. Triangulate for accuracy. Look for at least three different confirming sources from different perspectives:

  • Check multiple sources (e.g., commercial media, government, academic). The closer you get to the original source, the better. It is especially important to do this when you read a health news article written by a layperson who may not have the clinical expertise to see all of a research study’s implications or weaknesses. Try to find the original study.
  • Check multiple types of news media (print, cable, broadcast). Although it is weak, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has more oversight on network news because it is broadcast over the public airwaves. Your chances of finding balanced television news are better if you seek it from ABC, NBC, CBS or a local FOX or independent broadcast station. Cable companies have their own hardware and are not well regulated by the FCC. That’s why cable sites such as MSNBC, CNN or FOX can present one-sided opinions and strongly slanted perspectives with no repercussions.
  • Check multiple political perspectives (e.g., right, left, center). You may not believe a source is suitably objective, but you can balance your information by reading different ideas. For example, The Wall Street Journal and London’s Financial Times tend to be reliably conservative, and The New York Times and The Washington Post tend to be more liberal. The Associated Press and Reuters have websites with more balanced news because they sell syndicated information to multiple media sites and slanted coverage would limit their markets.

These are just a few quick tips to serve as reminders that it takes time and research to ensure any information you pass along is helpful and true. In these confusing times, please be as careful with information as you are with a clinical procedure or a medication.

What is one thing you do to double-check whether a social media post or internet item is true before you share it?