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How to combat misinformation when you need the truth the most

March 20, 2020

What to listen to — and what to filter out

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo warned Thursday that misinformation and fear related to the coronavirus are in many ways “more dangerous than the virus.”  

“We now have misinformation and fear and panic which is as contagious or more contagious than the virus,” the governor told reporters. “We have to deal with both of them.”  

On a good day, the internet is rife with nonsense. With the world in a tailspin, that has been dialed up to 11.

Nadya Bliss is the executive director of Arizona State University’s Global Security Initiative. The unit works on researching and cracking security challenges that are global in scale, borderless by nature, interdependent and often have no clear solutions — exactly the type of problem the world is under assault by now.

ASU Now asked Bliss to weigh in on how to recognize what’s real and what’s malarkey, and what you can do to find the truth.

Question: What makes this particular situation so challenging from the information perspective?

Answer: First of all, it is important to appreciate that COVID-19 is tracking an exponential trend. An exponential trend is essentially one where the change from one data point to the next is a multiple. So, for example, if you start with two infections that are increasing at an exponential rate of doubling every day, then in 10 days there will be 1,024 infections. And then on 11th day, there will be 2,048. Because of the novelty of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, there isn’t enough data to say definitively exactly how often the number of COVID-19 cases is doubling, but all data indicates that it is every few days.

So from day to day, the situation is drastically different. It is difficult to internalize an exponential and that can cause a lot of confusion or bad information to be shared. In fact, while an exponential sounds scary, it should actually be reassuring. If we understand that the virus’s spread is exponential, then we know that tomorrow is going to be a lot worse than today and we can prepare for it. This is why there are so many calls to devote more resources to hospitals and the health care system — it’s not because they are overrun with cases now. It’s because the exponential spread of the virus indicates they will be in the near future.

Q: Regarding coronavirus, is there more than the usual amount of nonsense floating around on the internet?

A: There is always a lot of nonsense floating around the net. But the nonsense in this case is particularly dangerous since we are in the middle of a worldwide pandemic. I’ll make three points about some of the misinformation floating around:

First, there are simply a lot of unknowns about the virus because it is new. This provides fertile ground for rumors and for people looking to deliberately spread false information, because bad information cannot always be easily refuted by well-documented facts in this case.

Second, there is much misinformation that is caused by fear and panic, but also by the fact that some countries control their information environments and thus it is difficult to know the truth — though that was more of a challenge in the beginning of the timeline.

Third, the lack of testing in the U.S. has also created much opportunity for disinformation. People see raw numbers of cases that do not look that alarming in some states. However, all experts agree that the raw numbers do not represent an accurate picture — the numbers represent documented cases, and without robust testing we cannot get an accurate count. Experts agree that the three top interventions that we need to implement at the system level to protect our communities are:

  • Social distancing
  • Testing
  • Ensuring there are medical supplies — respirators, masks, etc. — to manage exponentially rising case loads

Q: What’s the best way to recognize the truth?

A: The key is to seek out credible sources — consider the credentials of the source and be aware of agendas and incentives. In the middle of an emergency, you want to look at sources that are clear, accurate and transparent. Good sources will say things like: "This is a challenging situation, there is a lot of unknowns, this is what we do know, here are measures we need to put in place."

And it is important to listen to the experts — medical doctors, scientists, health policy experts — for the details on the disease and drug development; computer scientists/journalists/information scientists on the information environment; national and homeland security professionals on logistics and crisis operations.

Q: Should people stick to the usual trusted sources, like Mayo Clinic, the CDC, and Johns Hopkins, and avoid social media?

A: It is vital to reference trusted sources such as above. However, given that the situation is rapidly evolving, it is OK to consult trusted people’s feeds. Again, I would recommend that those people are experts. Another thing that I would recommend is, if you are someone who is an expert, talk to your family and friends about what sources you follow and what recommendations you would make and why.

Q:  What else? Are there new threats in this landscape?

A: One other very important thing to point out is it is vital to not let your defenses down. Hackers and agents that propagate disinformation are opportunist and there already have been multiple reports of efforts to take advantage of this situation. In one case, malware was posing as a COVID-19 tracking map created by John Hopkins. When people clicked on it, it stole information. There are likely to be many efforts — by scammers looking to make money and by adversarial nation states looking to inflict damage — throughout this crisis, so pause, accept that we are not living in a normal moment and then be conscientious. It is OK to loosen your restrictions a bit, but don’t completely forget about security and privacy.

Top photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now

Scott Seckel

Reporter , ASU News


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Female police officers’ use of force seen as more justified

March 20, 2020

ASU researchers collected data from 452 participants for new study

Police officers’ use of excessive force — as well as the resulting legal outcomes — have shaken communities across the United States. Police departments are increasingly requiring their officers to wear body cams and to film their interactions with the public. It’s thought that video provides an objective take on what occurs during officers’ interactions with the public.

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Jessica Salerno. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

But new research from Arizona State University researchers Jessica Salerno and doctoral student Justin Sanchez suggests that people believe police use of force is more situationally justified when a female officer uses it. Furthermore, people’s interpretation of video footage may not be objective when it comes to gauging force during policing, according to the researchers.

In this study, Salerno and Sanchez tested how 452 study participants interpreted the same “objective” video of an officer using force based on what they believed the officer’s gender and race to be. The study, “Subjective Interpretation of ‘Objective’ Video Evidence: Perceptions of Male versus Female Police Officers’ Use of Force,” was published March 12 in the journal Law and Human Behavior.

The researchers found that even though all participants were watching the same interaction, participants believed that when a male officer used force, it was driven by internal traits, such as aggressiveness or emotional reactivity, which was associated with decreased trust and perceived effectiveness.

In contrast, participants who believed they saw a female officer use force believed her actions were driven more by external aspects of being in a dangerous situation, which was associated with increased trust and perceived effectiveness.

All participants were randomly assigned to view a segment of the same police-civilian interaction that either did or did not include force. The force used was obvious on the dash cam video. However, the officer was wearing dark clothing against a dark background and the interaction occurred far away from the dash cam, so it was difficult to determine the gender and race of the officer.

To determine how participants would interpret the incident differently based on the officer’s gender and race, the researchers randomly assigned participants to view one of a set of different photographs of an officer. They were told that the officer in the photo was the officer in a video they were about to watch. Each participant saw a photograph of either a white male officer, a white female officer, a black male officer, or a black female officer. 

“Because we don’t stereotype women as aggressive, it’s surprising when a woman is physically aggressive,” said Salerno, an associate professor in the School of Social and Behavioral Sciences. So, participants tend to attribute a female officer’s behavior to external factors, not to stable personality traits.

“People explain her use of force by looking at the dangerous situation,” she said.

However, when officers of either gender used force, participants trusted officers less and perceived them to be less effective than when they did not use force.

“We definitely saw people having very negative reactions to use of force,” Salerno said.

Research conducted over decades shows that people tend to attribute others’ behavior to internal motivation; in essence, who they are, Salerno said.

“For example, if someone commits a violent act, people tend to say it’s because they’re a violent person,” she said.

Salerno said she was surprised by the study’s results. “I have to say I was very surprised because I’ve been doing years of work that keeps showing over and over that when women in their professions act in masculine ways they tend to get penalized for it. I think that’s why this particular study is interesting.” 

“There’s this idea that video is going to get rid of the controversy and disagreement about police use of force,” Salerno said. “But this study shows that people are still going to disagree because their viewing of the same interaction is going to be filtered through their own biases and stereotypes.”

The study also has bearing on our justice system, Salerno said. “We hope that everyone will be treated the same, but if jurors were looking at the video of the police using force it would seem that male officers might be punished more harshly than female officers. They’re all watching the same incident, but they might judge that person more harshly because they make different assumptions about what drives a male versus female officer’s aggressive behavior. It’s an example of how gender stereotypes can potentially lead to different outcomes.”

This research was supported by a grant from the American Psychology-Law Society awarded to Justin Sanchez.

Top photo credit: Getty Images

Science writer , Media Relations and Strategic Communications