How to (tactfully) discourage spread of false pandemic information in chats, email

Understanding emotion and sentiment as society responds to the COVID-19 virus is the key to stopping the spread of false information, experts say.

Understanding emotion and sentiment are the key, especially with family and friends

'I think it's really important to point out any kind of disinformation or conspiracy about the virus, because a lot of the stuff out there can cause real harm to people,' says Samantha Bradshaw of the University of Oxford’s Internet Institute. (The Associated Press)

It can be the bane of family group chats and email chains.

Though not wholly unique to the era of COVID-19, false information — often forwarded from unknown sources — is rampant these days, across ages and educational backgrounds. But how you respond to these misleading messages could potentially help stem the tide of misinformation, as well as ease minds in a tense time.

Let's say your well-meaning dad drops a link to a site you've never seen before. The headline screams "5G TOWERS CAUSE CORONAVIRUS," with his own caps-locked commentary reading "SCARY STUFF!"

Do you ignore it?

Do you call him out, saying how ridiculous it is?

"As much as you want to reply to your dad, 'This is stupid and here's a fact-checking article that shows why you're stupid,'" warns Claire Wardle, director of First Draft, a non-profit focused on helping people tackle misinformation, "if you do that, you've publicly shamed him."

Wardle points to research suggesting chewing someone out like that can lead to a bad outcome.

"What happens is that your dad doubles down on his view, and he dismisses what you're saying."

A time of fear

Sure, we're picking on dad here, but Wardle will tell you that fear and panic around COVID-19 has led all kinds of people to spread misinformation.

Including her.

"It was one of those lockdown messages that I saw lots of people share. It was saying there was going to be a lockdown in New York in 72 hours. The shops were going to be closed. There's going to be nothing available. And I forwarded it to two of my friends."

Wardle found out the next morning it wasn't true. Professional embarrassment aside, the incident reminded her of how vulnerable people can be — even those trained in media literacy.

"When we're scared we're much more susceptible to these forms of misinformation, because we're less likely to kick in our critical brain activities. We're much more likely to have an emotional reaction."

The COVID-19 misinformation crackdown

3 years ago
Duration 2:00
More countries are cracking down on the spreading of misinformation about COVID-19 with some making it illegal.

Her suggestion, then, for responding to a family member or friend: Be empathetic. Use words that put yourself in the same perspective, getting at the underlying emotion behind the message. In this case, fear.

"Hey Dad, I saw what you posted. It's interesting because I've actually seen a number of people post that. But I think the reason people are sharing it right now is because they're scared and they're looking for answers," Wardle suggests, adding, "I'd love to talk because I'm really worried, too, Dad."

Context over criticism

Compassion can help when the facts shift, especially during this pandemic where official advice and research has evolved so quickly. Still, it's good to remind people and keep them aware of how dangerous misleading information can be.

"I think it's really important to point out any kind of disinformation or conspiracy about the virus, because a lot of the stuff out there can cause real harm to people," says Samantha Bradshaw of the University of Oxford's Internet Institute.

"But … it's also important to remember that this is our family and our friends and people who are close to us. Maintaining that stability and those relationships is really key."

Bradshaw suggests sharing more credible sources of information about the virus, such as messages issued by public health agencies (including Public Health Agency of Canada, World Health Organization, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention).

With your dad and his 5G theory, maybe it's sending him a link to an article explaining where that particular conspiracy started and how it doesn't hold up to various levels of scrutiny.

Shared responsibility

In the end, you may expend a lot of careful effort and none of it may stop those you're close to from spreading false information. Misleading content is designed to trigger an emotional reaction, which is then easy to share on social networks.

In response, last week WhatsApp laid out new measures that put restrictions on forwarded messages.

The two factors driving COVID-19 disinformation

3 years ago
Duration 1:26
There are both human and algorithmic drivers that cause false information about the coronavirus to spread, says Samantha Bradshaw of Oxford University's Internet Institute.

"It's very human and technical, at the end of the day," Bradshaw explains about the spread of mis- and dis-information.

"And so you need solutions to both. I think any steps that the platforms are taking to limit the virality of information is really key to combating the spread of this kind of content."

Both Bradshaw and Wardle agree that addressing the issue is better than ignoring it.

"It's very easy to just mute your crazy high school friend on Facebook or to leave a WhatsApp group where people are sharing false information," Wardle concedes.

"But right now, there's a responsibility on all of us to help people understand that sharing that kind of information is increasing the level of pollution."


Anand Ram


Anand Ram is a producer for CBC Television's The National. He has previously written for Financial Post and on personal tech and business.

With files from Adrienne Arsenault


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