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How to avoid spreading misinformation in times of crisis

COVID-19 and recent protests have increased the spread of misinformation and disinformation on social media and other platforms. Sponsored by AARP Washington.

SEATTLE — The COVID-19 crisis has caused a great deal of anxiety and uncertainty worldwide. Many people are turning to social media for updates, but it's important to be aware that not all information found online is accurate.

“What we’re seeing in this event, due to the long-term uncertainty and the fact that the event just keeps going and going with COVID-19, is that there is just more opportunity for people to get things wrong and spread misinformation,” said Kate Starbird, Associate Professor of Human-Centered Design and Engineering at the University of Washington.

Disinformation is also a factor, which is distinguishable from misinformation:

  • Misinformation: Information that is not intentionally false
  • Disinformation: Information that is purposely false or misleading and is usually spread for an objective, often political in nature

The recent spread of misinformation is not new or unusual, but it is being spread at a much higher volume than usual because of the pandemic and recent protests.

Starbird's research shows that disinformation is more common in man-made events such as political campaigns and protests, versus natural disasters. Misinformation, on the other hand, can easily spread through all crises.

"People just sometimes get things wrong when they're trying to figure out what's happening in a crisis event when there's so much uncertainty."

It is often difficult to tell what is true and what isn’t on websites like Facebook and Twitter. Anybody is prone to spreading misinformation, and Starbird herself even admits to have taken part. She shared these key takeaways when it comes to sharing news that may or may not be true online:

  • Slow down. Don’t share an update or post on a hot topic right away. Watch the conversation and verify the information is true. 
  • Take responsibility if you do share something you later learn is false. Everyone makes mistakes sometimes on social media. Acknowledging your mistake can actually help you gain credibility with your audience. 
  • Edit your original post to include a correction, rather than delete the post. That way, if other people have shared your post, their audience will also see the correction. If you feel deleting your post is the best option, be sure to also post the correct information in a separate update. 
  • Correct others. If someone close to you is spreading false information, talk with them privately. If it is someone you don’t know well, politely correct the information publicly.

Collective sensemaking is common in crisis events. It is the idea that when a crisis happens, people want to come together to gather information and make sense of what’s happening. 

"Sometimes those explanations can turn out to be true and sometimes those explanations can turn out to be false. It’s this very natural process,” Starbird said. “It does make us vulnerable to spreading misinformation.”

Because people are increasingly getting and sharing information about important topics on social media, these sites are starting to put policies in place to stop the spread of misinformation and disinformation. Some now remove posts or flag content as possibly untrue, and many sites are evolving their policies to keep up with the uncertain times.

Watch Starbird's full interview on YouTube:

Sign up now for AARP Washington's Free Online Speaker Series, "Sorting Fact from Fiction"

To help Washingtonians better sort fact from fiction, AARP, the Center for an Informed Public at the University of Washington and BECU are offering a four-part series of free online events called Sorting Fact from Fiction: Finding truth in an infodemic. The event is open to everyone. Pre-registration is required. Sign up now at AARP.org/factfromfiction

  • Oct. 24, 11 AM -- David Mikkelson & Jevin West, The Truth is Out There: Fact checking tips and resources

Past Event:

  • Sep. 16, 11 AM -- Jevin West, Confronting Misinformation: How to avoid falling for and spreading misinformation, disinformation, and “fake news”
  • Oct. 3, 11 AM -- Brett Johnson,  Inside the Mind of "The Original Internet Godfather": A former Dark Web mastermind details how scammers convince you to hand over your hard-earned money
  • Oct. 14,  6 PM -- Jeffrey Hancock, The Future of Lying: The new rules of deception and trust

KING 5's New Day Northwest presents Sorting Fact From Fiction. Sponsored by AARP Washington in partnership with the Center for an Informed Public at the University of Washington and BECU.  All segments available at king5.com/factfromfiction.