How to stop Covid-19 misinformation from spreading on social media

A volunteer in Chennai, India, holds a sign to raise public awareness of the coronavirus virus on a street during a national government-imposed lockdown to combat the spread of Covid-19.

Arun Sankar | AFP | Getty Images

Do you see erroneous information about the coronavirus in your social media feeds? You are far from alone.

Studies reveal that large swathes of the population believe at least one false statement about Covid-19, and many openly share content to support their opinions online. More than thirty percent of Americans believe that scientists created the new coronavirus in a laboratory, for example, even if this theory has been widely discredited.

False allegations became so widespread during the pandemic that the World Health Organization referred to an “infodemia”.

So what should you do if you spot people sharing lies on social media? And is there a way to convince them otherwise?

CNBC spoke to a range of experts for advice on how to report disinformation, ideally without alienating friends or family members in the process. They all agreed that the exercise was definitely worth a try – and many studies argue that – but recognize that you might not always succeed.

Here are some of their best tips if you’re ready to try:

Try to send a private message

Sherry Pagoto, a professor in the department of related health sciences at the University of Connecticut, has thought a lot about this. Pagoto, who studies human behavior, saw false information spread on his own social networks at an accelerated rate during the pandemic.

His advice to others is to avoid the person posting the information from feeling stupid by embarrassing them publicly. This will likely make them more defensive, which is counterproductive if your goal is to change your mind. Instead, send a private message instead or set a time to speak one-on-one, depending on how close you are to that person.

“You don’t want it to sound like a ‘gotcha’ moment,” warns Pagoto.

She recognizes that there is some value in posting publicly, so that other community members can see the message and the responses. But she will often try a private message at the start and hopes the poster will consider removing the content without feeling ashamed.

Be nice and stay curious

Dan Ness, a technology researcher based in southern California, recently saw a neighbor’s article on Nextdoor about a local politician asking how many people had actually died from Covid-19. The intention of the publication was to stimulate discussion on the reopening of businesses.

Ness noticed that the source of the information seemed dubious, so he asked the neighbor in private if he might want to double-check if the politician was cited incorrectly.

It worked. The neighbor chose to delete the post.

“He didn’t feel attacked by my demeaning,” said Hess, when asked why he thought the strategy was successful.

Gina Merchant, a behavioral specialist based in San Diego, leads with curiosity and empathy when she fights against disinformation. If she sees a reference to the “Chinese virus” on her sons, for example, she will ask questions or open a larger discussion. (Public health experts have criticized the term “China virus”, which was used by President Trump, contribute to xenophobia and racism against people of Asian descent).

“I’m going to write something back,” it’s interesting to think about the origin of viruses, “” she said, before trying to start a conversation about the term. “I am trying to rotate the conversation to avoid being overwhelmed by emotions,” she said.

Pagoto suggested recognizing that someone could find a piece of compelling misinformation before passing on information that contradicts them.

“This is very understandable, given that disinformation is more and more sophisticated“, she notes.

Be relatable

When Dr. Ashely Alker started receiving a series of questions about a viral video clip, called plandemic, she knew she had to talk about it with family and friends. So Dr. Alker, who works in emergency medicine, set up a Twitter feed where she dismantled many of the false allegations made in the film and shared it with her network.

Dr. Alker said she always takes the time to fight disinformation, but tries to do it in a way that people can relate to. “I like to make science something that everyone can understand,” she said. “If you can give someone a way to relate to the information, it helps.”

It will often start with and build on a generally known or accepted science. She avoids using medical jargon as much as possible. She has had great success with this approach and is now preparing weekly infographics to explain various aspects of the science.

“What doesn’t work is becoming political or making someone stupid,” she added.

Avoid the data stack on

Zayna Khayat, a health strategist, has had mixed success with data sharing. She recently attempted to correct a distant family friend who released a previous flu epidemic that had killed many Americans, while advocating against the closings of Covid-19.

“I responded with a simple fact check and added three to four fact points that closed the entire article.”

“No response,” she said.

According to Pagoto’s experience, non-scientists are often better able to digest new information in the form of stories than facts, charts, graphs and statistics. When confronted with conflicting information, some people will even double their existing opinions by looking for more data – often from illegitimate sources – that support their point of view, rather than adapting to new evidence.

“Not everyone makes decisions and does not form an opinion based on the data,” said Pagoto. She therefore recommends using the data where appropriate, but communicating using personal stories or anecdotes.

“It’s best to present yourself as a human being,” said Timothy Caulfield, a Canadian law professor at the University of Alberta, who specializes in researching disinformation. “We all want to dialogue with authentic people who seem to understand our concerns.”

But still … provide the facts

Experts agree that it is useful to draw some links to credible research while appealing.

Dan Freedman, Pediatric Neurophysiology Fellow, adopted this approach when a friend from his network posted a video starring controversial scientist Dr. Shiva Ayyadurai making false claims about Dr. Anthony Fauci.

Freedman, who is based in Ohio, assumed the poster was unaware of Ayyadurai’s turbulent past. He therefore pointed out that he lacked expertise in infectious diseases or immunology, was a known critic of vaccines and had made a false claim that he had invented email. “She realized her mistake and deleted the post (and) then when someone else shared it, she commented ‘this guy is an antivaxxer’.”

Freedman believes the approach worked because he shared the information from friend to friend and did not pass judgment on it for publishing it.

“I told her that I knew she was unaware of her story and thought that acquaintance could change her mind.”

Caulfield, the University of Alberta’s disinformation expert, agrees that it is always worthwhile to provide a brief summary or some links to science, as well as to refer to reputable sources of information . It doesn’t always work, but some people will even turn around and fix others with the new information at hand.

Do not be discouraged

If you have taken the time to fight disinformation, thank you for your service on the Internet. But be aware that you cannot convince everyone.

While researching the anti-vaccination content, Merchant realized that some people were open to new information (she called them “fence guards”). But some hard-core anti-vaxxers weren’t ready to move, despite a lot of scientific evidence.

So in some cases, you may not want to bother. And if you feel that you need a break, there is always the possibility of cutting or blocking someone. You can also report the content as bogus on some social media sites, including Facebook (although these companies have been notoriously slow to respond).

In the end, the experts recommend that you choose your battles. And please, don’t get exhausted in the process.

Have you ever convinced a friend or family member to delete the disinformation? Share your strategy with us @CNBCTech.

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