COVID-19 and social media: Limit the spread of fear by changing online behaviour

Disinformation about the coronavirus crisis not only generates fear and panic, but it also hinders the work of public health officials who are trying to slow the pandemic. Here are some tips you can use to avoid passing on inaccurate information.

Take a deep breath before forwarding posts about dubious cures or video from unknown sources

A passenger in a protective mask uses her phone at Rome's Fiumicino airport. (Yara Nardi/Reuters)

Public health authorities worldwide have asked people to change their habits in order to slow the progression of the COVID-19 pandemic. They implore citizens to wash their hands more frequently, to avoid large gatherings and to put themselves in voluntary quarantine if they feel flu-like symptoms.

But as health authorities attempt to calm the public, coronavirus mis- and disinformation is spreading through social media.

Disinformation about the coronavirus not only generates fear and panic, but it can make outbreaks worse by encouraging people to follow bad advice, according to a study by U.K. researchers.

As the crisis unfolds and expands, Décrypteurs, Radio-Canada's social media fact-checking team, has been monitoring the unprecedented spread of disinformation and fake news. 

Here are a few tips you can follow to avoid infecting your friends' feeds with disinformation.

Only share trustworthy sources you know well

When using social media, make sure you've heard of the social media account before you share any piece of information. (Wilfredo Lee/The Associated Press)

Social media connects the world together. It also exposes us to sources of information from around the world. In normal times, it's already difficult to tell trustworthy sources from untrustworthy ones. In times of crisis, it's even harder.

Only share news from local media sources you are familiar with. If you've never heard of the media outlet or the social media account that is putting forward a piece of information, don't share it.

A public health notice published by the U.K. government doesn't apply in Canada. A news item from the U.S. might not necessarily represent what's going on here either.

The same thing goes for posts about supposed "cures" or health tips to help with COVID-19: Only trust local public health authorities.

Be wary of videos or pictures that purport to show 'what's really going on'

Since the beginning of the crisis, Décrypteurs has received an enormous number of questions related to images or videos circulating on social media. These images often purport to show what's going in on in this or that country.

Not only is it often impossible to verify these videos, which likely have been filmed by unknown people in undisclosed locations, but it is also much too easy to take videos or pictures out of context and subvert the meaning. For example, Décrypteurs has seen videos from 2018 being applied to the present crisis, presenting a false narrative.

Instead of sharing pictures and videos circulating in Facebook posts and tweets, look for articles that explain the context instead.

Avoid speculation

Before sharing any piece of information, take a deep breath, and if needed, go for a short walk. (Ted S. Warren/The Associated Press)

No one can predict the future, no matter how smart they claim to be.

The present crisis is evolving extremely rapidly. What was true yesterday might not be true today.

Avoid sharing posts which contain speculation about what's about to unfold. No one really knows what will happen tomorrow. Absorb information one day at a time. Follow trustworthy news sources as the crisis evolves. 

Speculation — often from unqualified or untrustworthy sources — can lead to fear and panic. 

Make less noise

The coronavirus worries everyone. It's normal to want to give our opinion on social media, to try to join the conversation. On the other hand, social media feeds have a glut of COVID-19 posts from all sorts of sources. That not only causes confusion, but also leads to a type of paralysis as people ask who and what should I believe? What should I think?

Before clicking "publish," ask yourself a few questions:

  • Is this necessary?
  • Why do I want to share this?
  • Am I propagating fear and confusion?
  • Am I helping to inform my friends?

Take a deep breath

On social media, speed can trip you up.

Before sharing a piece of information, take a deep breath. Calmly evaluate what you're about to share. Get up and go pour yourself a cup of coffee, or take a short walk. Water your plants. Play with your pet.

Your friends — and society at large — will thank you.


Jeff Yates

Radio-Canada columnist

Jeff Yates is a Radio-Canada columnist who checks online facts and debunks fake news. He's part of Décrypteurs, Radio-Canada's team dedicated to tackling online disinformation.


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