Five things you can do about misinformation

by Neil Horton
Consulting Director

A virus is a tiny, inert clump of organic molecules.  It has no brain, no intention, no ability to reproduce.  However, with a suitable host, it can unknowingly hijack resources and spread far and wide.   

There are not one, but two viral pandemics infecting the globe today. The COVID-19 pandemic, rampant since March, has interrupted life in ways not seen in our country in over a century. With vaccines in development, we just may have a light at the end of the tunnel. The spread of misinformation, the other pandemic, has serious implications for healthcare and no cure in sight. 

The emergence of social media has unwittingly become a host for publishing legitimate-looking sources of information in order to persuade readers. Artificial intelligence, in the form of bots, simulates human users and scales up the viral spread of false stories. And for causes in search of an audience, social media boasts over three billion regular users eager for new content on a topic like COVID-19. 

Both of these viral pandemics exploit vulnerable populations.

At the time of this writing, over 7.5 million total cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed in the U.S. with more than 210,000 deaths. Data from the CDC shows the highest percentage of death from COVID occurring in patients 65 or older.  According to the Pew Research Center, over 72% of U.S. adults use social media to connect, entertain themselves and engage with news content. In an unfortunate parallel, older adults are also more vulnerable to misinformation, and are more likely to share it. A  study published by Science Magazine concluded that this group is seven times more likely to share misinformation compared to the 18-29 age group.

Dr. Alison Escalante, a science contributor with Forbes, writes that misinformation has repeatedly undermined efforts to keep Americans safe during the coronavirus pandemic. She cites a recent study published in Misinformation Review that found that those who get their news from social media are more likely to believe falsehoods about the virus, and less likely to follow public health recommendations.  While social media companies are beginning to recognize their culpability and take action, the pandemic of misinformation about the virus is not showing signs of weakening.

5 Things we can all do

Jevin West, an  assistant professor in the Information School at the University of Washington, and the Director of its Center for an Informed Public, offers tips we can all employ to detect misinformation, and help limit its spread:

1. Read beyond the headlines.Don’t share a story with a shocking headline without reading the article and considering the source. Think more, share less.

2. Watch out for emotional hooks.  Emotions can hijack our intellect.

3. Be aware of axes manipulation in graphs. Graphs that “zoom in” (fail to show zero as the reference point) or “zoom out” (minimizing the data of interest), can completely misrepresent findings.

4. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Copy and paste the headline in your browser window, use a trusted fact-checking service, consult respected authorities on the subject.

5. Use the same scrutiny on stories and postings that appear to support your beliefs. Don’t become blinded by your own biases.

We are all in this together

The story of 2020 will be the tale of two global pandemics: one biological, one informational. While we are fighting an airborne virus, we are also being inundated with misinformation about it — where it came from, whether it is real, whether masks help and when a vaccine will be available, just to note a few.Politicians, science, higher education, startup culture, advertisers and consumers, all — often innocently — contribute to the confusion and chaos. If any crisis warrants clear, truthful communication, it’s the COVID-19 pandemic. Vulnerable populations have suffered increased morbidity and mortality as a result of the virus and they often struggle to distinguish truth from fiction on social media.

We owe it to our friends, family and patients, to be on guard for misinformation and take all reasonable precautions to avoid becoming unwitting hosts and spreading misinformation far and wide.

For accurate and timely health care news, Vizient publishes: COVID-19 Resources. 

About the author. Neil Horton is consulting director for clinical advisory solutions at Vizient. As a registered nurse, he brings more than 30 years of experience to the role including clinical, value analysis, operational and sales.

Published: October 14, 2020