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As the COVID-19 outbreak spreads, so does misinformation on social media

someone with a computer pulled up on facebook and a phone in their hand
As the COVID-19 outbreak spreads, so does the misinformation about the disease on social media.

As the cases of COVID-19 continue to climb, public health officials are calling for "social distancing" to slow the spread of the virus. Schools are being shut down, large events cancelled, and an increasing number of organizations are asking employees to work remotely.

As people are spending more time alone, social media can be a place to gather, connect, and share information. But as stress runs high and half-truths circulates, do these platforms carry their own kind of risk?

Cliff Lampe, professor at the University of Michigan School of Information, said that it’s important to seek out information about the pandemic from reliable sources. Those include epidemiologists and doctors who specialize in diseases like the novel coronavirus. When warranted, he said you can share updates and start dialogues with others online in a thoughtful way.

“I think the best thing to do is to first recognize that everybody’s struggling in an environment that’s filled with information,” Lampe said. “The second thing that it’s important to do is to point to sources and just say, ‘This is what I heard,’ and not try to pretend to be an expert yourself.”

Staying on top of social media is part of Michigan Radio news director Vince Duffy’s job. He said that he has noticed some common themes in the misinformation circulating about COVID-19 online. 

“One of the most surprising things that I continue to see is this sort of theory that this virus has been created and promoted by the media in some way because there’s an effort to discredit President Trump, and that this is all some sort of manufactured thing,” Duffy said. 

He's also seen a number of people online comparing the symptoms of COVID-19 to the flu. But Duffy said that misses the point. By recommending social distancing, governments and organizations are attempting to control the number of sick people needing medical care at the same time. Otherwise, hospitals could quickly become overwhelmed with patients in critical condition. 

Lampe said that while there are reasons to be mindful of how we use social media in the coming days, it's not all bad. He said he's been encouraged to see how many people are supporting one another online.

“One of the things that's going to happen with social distancing is that people are going to be separated from their networks,” Lampe said. “And so I've been super surprised and super happy, actually, about how there’s kind of a spirit of togetherness that I see forming on social media."

While you might find yourself turning to social media as a way to connect with other people during the COVID-19 outbreak, Duffy said you should also consider just taking a break from online conversations. 

So, the next time you feel the urge to check the Twitter feed you refreshed five minutes ago, take time to pause…and maybe wash your hands instead.

This post was written by Stateside production assistant Nell Ovitt. 

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Stateside is produced daily by a dedicated group of producers and production assistants. Listen daily, on-air, at 3 and 8 p.m., or subscribe to the daily podcast wherever you like to listen.
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