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7 ways to protect yourself against misinformation

April 7, 2020

News outlets, along with everyone else in the world, are sharing their facts, opinions and advice on COVID-19, the illness caused by the novel coronavirus. With the overwhelming information that’s available, how do you know how to sift through and find only what is accurate and necessary to keep you and your community safe?

Arizona State University researchers provide a few quick tips to protect yourself from fake or misleading news during this time.  

1. Pay attention to where your news is coming from.

“If it's coming through your Twitter, Facebook or Instagram feed, don't think of it as information from those platforms, because it’s not,” said Scott Ruston, a researcher in ASU’s Global Security Initiative.

"Ask yourself, 'Who is this coming from and what is the background?' If the article you read makes accusations, ask yourself, 'Who does this benefit? What’s the underlying source material?' For example, the U.S. Department of State recently identified disinformation campaigns about the coronavirus in Europe," Ruston said. In those cases, strident claims about dangers to residents were made in order to undermine the government.

2. If you get information from social media, check the original source.  

“When someone asks you where you heard something, if your first inclination is to say Twitter, you need to stop and check because Twitter itself tells you nothing,” said Kristy Roschke, co-director of the News CoLab in the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

“Twitter gives people a feed of people who will tell you things," she said. "Ask questions like, ‘What's the actual post?’ ‘What's the thing that's telling you this piece of information?’ ‘Who is that person?’ 'Is it a media organization you've ever heard of before?’

"You can find all of that information in a Twitter profile. There's basic information you can find with a millisecond of extra effort. People who have credibility generally put information in their bios to bolster their credibility.”

3. Within news articles, examine the sources and how they are included.

“Look for how sources are treated and referenced,” Ruston said. “Journalists that work for traditional news outlets like AZCentral, CNN and the New York Times have a set of professional ethics guidelines and will assert their sources. The best is when the sources are named, the next best is when the names have been concealed for the protection of the source. However, it’s appropriate to be skeptical of articles that depend solely on unattributed sources without any kind of corroboration.”

4. Read beyond the headline.

“It's important to read the story fully," Ruston said. "Very often, headlines are misleading and are not there to inform you. The purpose of the headline is to get you to click on the link or to buy the newspaper, or to tune in if you're channel surfing.”

5. Get your news from a variety of sources.

People should check with additional news sources to confirm information they feel strongly about. 

“If you read something and if your reaction is any sort of extreme emotion, outrage or unmitigated joy, that’s a clear indicator that you should definitely read more deeply,” Ruston said. “Many of the disinformation examples we’ve come across in our research are designed not to inform but rather to activate a strong anger or fear response.”

6. When you see your friends and family share misinformation, correct them.

“Always be kind when helping people identify misinformation. Don't insult people's intelligence," Roschke said. “Don't repeat lies, because when you emphasize the thing that they got wrong, they're actually cognitively more likely to remember the thing they got wrong. You want to provide them with new information that comes from a source as reputable as possible.”

7. Find out what other information is out there.

“I really believe in expertise, which is why I really like NPR as a news source because there is deep expertise both from perspective of journalistic integrity and in selection of credible sources,” said Nadya Bliss, executive director of the Global Security Initiative. “I've actually done this where somebody will tweet something and I would think, ‘That's interesting, I wonder if it's true.’ Then, I will go separately into a Google search and pull up the news articles on it and see what's written about that topic.”

READ MORE: Bliss gives further insight into combating misinformation about the novel coronavirus in the ASU Now article “How to combat misinformation when you need the truth the most” and on air with KJZZ.

The Centers For Disease Control and Prevention has the most up-to-date information about the status of the novel coronavirus in the U.S. Members of the ASU community can also check the Health Services Novel Coronavirus page for regularly updated information. 

Written by Madison Arnold

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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