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Senior Fellow at the Digital Forensic Research Lab at the Atlantic Council
Director of the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab
Have you heard about taking a hot bath to kill the virus? Not only does it not work, but the World Health Organization is warning the public that people could scald themselves trying it. Then there’s the claim that the antimalarial chloroquine is a miracle drug. While the jury is still out on its efficacy, chloroquine is also potentially very dangerous, having recently killed a man in Arizona who drank it after hearing President Donald Trump call it “a tremendous breakthrough.”
The world has faced, and overcome, pandemics before. We’ve never faced one in this information climate. This is, as the World Health Organization declared in February, an infodemic: “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.”
CONSIDER THE SOURCE, AND CONSIDER THE SOURCE’S SOURCE.
Both of these steps help guard against disinformation (the intentional spread of false information), as well as misinformation (the unintentional, inadvertent spread of false information). Regardless of whether the message came from your immediate network (a family member, friend, or neighbor) or the greater information ecosystem (a celebrity, a public official, or the president of the United States), take the time to examine it before passing it on or accepting it as fact.
Check it against trusted authorities, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization, and ask yourself: Is the person telling me this trying to exploit my fear? Is their intention to help, or do they have other motivations? And even if you think their heart is in the right place, are you sure that their information is coming from sources that have a track record of honesty, are careful about getting the facts right, and put science ahead of politics?
CHECK YOUR OWN BIASES.
Our brains repeat patterns in order to make decisions more quickly, and they selectively seek out information that confirms what we already believe. These mental shortcuts don’t always lead to accurate conclusions. We all have beliefs we hold dear, and we tend to trust others who share those beliefs—which means that we often find ourselves caught in echo chambers or filter bubbles.
Get out of your information comfort zone. If you watch Fox News all day, try a few minutes of CNN, and vice versa. It’s important to know the facts first, but also to understand how those around you get their information.
ASK YOURSELF IF YOU’RE BEING CONSTRUCTIVE.
Before you share something, ask yourself if doing so is constructive for everyone who might see or hear it. Even if you intend to share something with only your immediate friends or family, they might share it as well, and their followers might share it too. Before you share a Facebook status or send a tweet, picture yourself standing at your local PTA, church, or community meeting. Is what you’re about to share constructive for those folks, or will it make the situation worse?
BE EMPHATIC, BUT ALSO EMPATHETIC.
If you’ve followed the steps above, you know the facts. And you’re right to be emphatic about those facts, but that’s not always enough. To quote the late social psychologist Leon Festinger, when you present someone who has a strong conviction with evidence that he’s wrong, “The individual will frequently emerge, not only unshaken, but even more convinced of the truth of his beliefs than ever before.” In other words, your goal shouldn’t be to be right, but to be helpful. Allow the people around you to discover the facts for themselves, even if—and especially when—they have your guidance.
REMEMBER THAT ANXIETY IS NATURAL, BUT IT’S ALSO VIRAL.
Anxiety compounds. As the public-health expert Judson Brewer recently wrote in the Harvard Business Review, “[W]hen anxiety is spread by social contagion—defined as the spread of affect from one person to another—it can lead to something even more problematic: panic.”
When we conduct fire drills, the guidance is to remain calm and file out of the building in an orderly fashion. We are trained to make sure that our response doesn’t worsen the situation. The same applies to navigating the online information space and personal communications—especially during a crisis. Your tone matters. And screaming into the void online or at someone in particular isn’t likely to make things better.
Be patient, kind, deliberate, and fact-based. More people will listen.
We’re in this together. It’s our civic duty to ensure we’re all making the smartest decisions and not allowing rumors or conspiracy theories to take seed. We all have a role to play. You don’t have to become an epidemiology expert—the medical professionals and journalists will do their jobs.
You do have to make an effort to not spread rumors or falsehoods, or anything else that could make a public-health response harder for those around you.
Lives depend on it.