Fear, fuelled by misinformation, travels faster than a virus. These are tricky times, when we’re all having to be extra vigilant about hygiene and suddenly all our social circles are possible vectors of an illness. In this environment, we may be obsessively checking the news and our social media, talking about little else with our socially distanced friends and trying to work out how to protect our incomes as well our loved ones.
In this environment, misinformation thrives. My editing work is mostly in scientific reports, so the fact-checking has been done by experts in the relevant fields before I see the work. But it is part of my job to pick up when something in the text is not right, and that means knowing how to find out if something is true.
In the last day or two I’ve seen a particular story going around that says it’s from Stanford Hospital, from ‘experts in Taiwan’ and ‘Japanese doctors’, with a lot of information about how to protect yourself from coronavirus. Some of the information in this story is incorrect, and the results of believing it can have serious impacts.
So how can you inoculate yourself and others against misinformation?
Simple, STARE before share!
STARE is source, truth, alternative, result, eradicate/encourage.
1. What is the source of this information?
If you see a post that says something like ‘I’m sharing this, which came from a member of the Stanford Hospital board’, ask yourself why the person hasn’t linked directly to the story on the Stanford Hospital website. Could it be that it didn’t come from there at all?
2. Is there any truth to this information?
In this step, you just need to apply common sense. For example, one post talks about coronavirus being killed by temperatures of just 26°C or 27°C. Yet the human body is around 37°C, and the virus is replicating in us just fine. Look at all the elements of the story and identify which ones you think are likely and which not. Most of us are not medical experts, so we can’t be expected to know all the truth in this situation, but we can all spend a few seconds saying, ‘Wait a minute …’ and go looking for information that is correct.
3. What do alternative sources say?
Look at official sources of information such as government health websites and reputable news sites. Go to fact-checking websites such as Snopes and Hoax-Slayer. Can you find other sources supporting this claim? Are any sources refuting it?
4. What could be the result of this story?
Some people think it doesn’t matter if the advice isn’t in itself harmful and does contain some elements of truth or even whole sections that are true. The problem is that it can lead people to think the issue is trivial and to ignore advice designed to protect them and others around them. For example, I know that some people think drinking warm water will eliminate coronavirus. This is not true, and any application of step 2 above should have made them think, ‘It’s not likely that all these sick people just didn’t drink enough warm water’. They are now ignoring other government advice and putting themselves and others at risk.
5. Will your actions eradicate or encourage this story?
Based on what you know about the story after the first four steps, should you share this story or stop it in its tracks? While social distancing is making it harder for coronavirus to jump from person to person, the increased time online means that ideas are continuing their viral spread. Be responsible. Be the one who stops it spreading.
STARE before share!