The Coronavirus Pandemic Is Misinformation, not COVID-19 (Yet)

Updated: Mar 12, 2020

Coronavirus was created in a lab?

By Bill Gates?!

Drinking bleach kills Coronavirus?

Don't drink Corona beer, though.

Or buy any products made in China. They'll have COVID-19 all over them.

If you do touch something labeled "Made in China," run your hands under a hot air dryer, go home and take a hot bath, eat a ton of garlic, and you should be fine.

Misinformation and Fake News about the Coronavirus has spread even more rapidly and widely than the actual Coronavirus.

The World Health Organization has declared an "infodemic" rather than a pandemic. The fact-checking service NewsGuard identifies dozens of websites spreading falsehoods and "remedies" for COVID-19, and CNN weighed in to debunk the most common myths.

The current "infodemic" perfectly illustrates why I wrote Become Your Own Fact-Checker.

In an atmosphere of panic, people want to believe that something as simple as taking a hot bath or eating garlic will protect them from illness. They want to blame someone or something for the virus, so they can gain a sense of control over an uncontrollable situation. Rational thinking goes out the window. And some unsavory people exploit the fear and panic to sell fake medicine, promote an alternative "news outlet," or spread a conspiracy theory.

It's hard to blame people for falling prey to the "infodemic" ahead of an actual pandemic. How does a lay-person know for certain that heat won't kill germs? Lay-people lack the expertise and training to assess the slew of claims about Coronavirus, Medicare-for-All, financial regulations, land-use planning, the war in Syria, international trade agreements, and the dozens of other issues present in contemporary society.

In Become Your Own Fact-Checker, I explain how to recognize the strategies that people use to misinform and manipulate. You don't have to become an expert on every issue. You don't have to religiously follow the news on the Coronavirus. You can simply learn how to decide whom and what to trust based on how they say what they say.

The chapter "Skeptics Ruin Everything, Except When They Save Everything," explains what should raise your defenses. The common saying, "Don't believe everything you hear," is very common for a reason. People often believe things they shouldn't! They don't raise their defenses when they should.

It's easy to believe things that, in retrospect, you shouldn't have believed, because people often feed us information that they think we want to hear. If we want to hear it, then we're more inclined to believe it. Only later, when it's not helpful, does someone remind us, "Don't believe everything you hear." We need to nurture a healthy skepticism to recognize when something is "off" in a news story even if we'd like to believe it.

So, how do we nurture skepticism?

First, we need to slow down our processing of information so that we can engage our critical thinking. Second, we need to ask some simple questions of the information. And lastly, we need to look for an agenda or angle.

If we slow down our processing of information, then we can think harder about it. When we see a meme and say, “Yeah, that’s right,” then we’ll be more likely to believe it without questioning it. But if we can slow down and think about it even for just a few seconds, we can determine whether we ought to be more critical of the information.

Once we're thinking slower, we can begin asking simple questions that tug at the plausibility of the information. If fighting Coronavirus were as simple as using heat to kill the virus, then would it be spreading so far and fast?

So if it's not that simple, then what's the agenda of the person or group spreading the misinformation? What self-interest are they serving?

How do we help others be more skeptical?

Most of us have had the experience of encountering someone who believes something that we can’t believe anyone would ever believe. Conspiracy theories surrounding the JFK assassination, the moon landing, or the 9/11 terror attacks offer just a few examples of beliefs that seem too implausible to be taken seriously yet are fervently held by many.

When you want to persuade your audience to view some information, idea, belief, or attitude with more skepticism, then you can apply the ideas of nurturing a healthy skepticism. You can ask questions to prompt people to think more carefully and critically about the information or their beliefs. Much like you can question information that seems suspicious, you can encourage your audience to ask the questions that you would like for them to ask.

However, it is important to ask so-called “small questions.” You will most likely not convince someone with a strongly-held belief to change that belief. But with “small questions” perhaps you can chip away at the belief, creating more open-mindedness to other ideas or starting a long journey of gradually giving up the belief. If you start with “big questions,” then you will trigger defensiveness and destroy any chance of influencing your audience.

Be Skeptical ... and Wash Your Hands

Instead of saying, "Don't believe everything you hear," let's give the much more helpful advice, "Slow down long enough to wonder whether you should believe what you hear."

And then advise, "Wash your hands while you're at it."

Thanks for reading!

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