Louise Dunn from Keswick is one of 20 new ‘Ask for Evidence Ambassadors’ across the UK recruited by the independent charity ‘Sense About Science’ and will be writing a column for the Keswick Reminder on topics suggested by readers for her to check out.
Coronavirus and the fake news pandemic
It is not just the COVID-19 virus that is spreading exponentially at the moment, we are also being engulfed by fake news and misinformation about the virus and the illness that it causes. There are too many examples of misinformation and unsubstantiated claims to go through them in detail as usual, so this week the ‘ask for evidence’ column will provide a few helpful pointers on how to spot misinformation, where you should look for reliable guidance, and how the good people of Keswick can help to generate evidence that might actually help.
The most reliable information is from the NHS (www.nhs.uk), the government (www.gov.uk), the Prime Minister’s daily press briefings and the more reputable mainstream media outlets (such as the BBC). Much of the misinformation is circulating on social media or WhatsApp and it is worth being discerning about what you read and what you forward to other people.
These tips may help:
Does it start with the words “this is true” or “they don’t want you to know this”?: Immediate red flags. It’s never very clear who ‘they’ is, but safe to say a conspiracy theory usually follows. There were stories circulating last week that coronavirus had been invented to discredit President Trump. Nope.
Where is it from?
If there is no source or a vague one claiming medical credentials such as ‘a doctor from Stanford University’, search to see if it has already been de-bunked by someone else. If the source is your friend’s mum’s neighbour’s hairdresser’s son-in-law who is head of the NHS, the information is probably rubbish. Watch for lack of expertise or vested interests; when the owner of Wetherspoons contradicted the Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser about whether viruses are transmitted in pubs we should all have been sceptical.
Does all of the information seem true?
Misinformation can be hard to spot when it includes something true. So if you see a long list that rapidly progresses from the importance of hand washing (true) to diagnosing COVID-19 infections by holding your breath for 10 seconds (garbage), stop reading.
Is it too good to be true?
If it looks too good to be true then it probably is. Think critically; is it really possible that drinking warm water will kill the COVID-19 virus? If it does, why are people in hospital?
Check what other people are saying. Is the information out of context or has a video been edited to make it appear to say something different to the original? Get the whole picture. Bear in mind that images and video can be faked.
Does the content make you emotional?
The people and organisations that send out fake news try to manipulate people’s feelings, sometimes by making us all angry or scared. There are numerous stories that COVID-19 was made by evil scientists who are also withholding a vaccine. Depending on the politics of the source, the fictional laboratory is either in China, Latvia or the UK.
Are they trying to sell you something?
Some of the misinformation about the coronavirus originate from companies using fear to sell more product. There is currently no preventative vaccine nor licensed medical treatment for COVID-19. The only treatments are provided by healthcare professionals, not someone on the internet selling potions, pills or magic stickers.
What does help?
All the things that the NHS is recommending: Washing your hands (properly), stay hydrated, get some sleep, try and eat well (Keswick food outlets are well stocked), take measures to look after your mental health (by avoiding misinformation), stay at home, isolate if necessary, social distance otherwise (and anything else the experts have suggested since this column was written).
What can you do?
Join the fight against the misinformation pandemic: verify information on social media before you share it, if in doubt don’t share; hold people accountable for spreading fake news and ask people for evidence for their claims. You can also contribute to the evidence being gathered about community incidence of infections by registering on www.flusurvey.net which is being run by Public Health England.
How can you check information?
Sense About Science (www.senseaboutscience.org) run the Ask for Evidence Campaign (www.askforevidence.org) and provide advice on how to check claims. Full fact (www.fullfact.org) is an independent charity and they are checking facts relating to coronavirus and sharing them on Twitter and other online platforms.
For those with an appetite for more detailed information, Oxford University has set up a COVID-19 information service which summarises the latest evidence behind many of the decisions being made to address the pandemic www.cebm.net/oxford-COVID-19.
Write in to [email protected] with anything you want me to look into. Send me the worst examples of misinformation you have found.
Louise Dunn is a Keswick resident and an ‘ask for evidence’ ambassador for the charity Sense About Science. She is available to give virtual talks to community groups and schools who are interested in joining in the campaign to raise standards in public life.