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How to battle the misinformation epidemic

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Medical professionals and public health leaders are frustrated with the debunked conspiracy theories, discredited YouTube clips and the social sharing of misinformation related to health care issues.

OSF HealthCare Director of Infection Prevention and Control Lori Grooms said the many unknowns about the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic – due to the speed and scale at which it spread – created an anxious public understandably looking for answers. That’s what fueled the spread of conspiracy theories and misinformation.

But it’s not just about COVID-19, it’s about many things reported in the media today.

Increased anxiety

“With misinformation comes a lot of anxiety and fear. In the case of COVID-19, when you have anxiety and fear you have people who begin to make statements and they don’t necessarily understand everything about bacteria and viruses and how things are spread. They may not understand what they need to do to stay safe,” Grooms said.

Some organizations, which promote conspiracy theories online, actively spread misinformation and big social media companies struggle to keep up with either labeling or removing misleading content. The World Health Organization (WHO) calls it an “infodemic,” which is described as “an overabundance of information — some accurate and some not — rendering it difficult to find trustworthy sources of information and reliable guidance.”

Other public health organizations agree misinformation has reached epidemic proportions.

Challenges for consumers

What becomes challenging for consumers, according to the Center for News Literacy at Stony Brook University – School of Journalism in Stony Brook, New York, comes down to four things:

  • Information overload
  • Speed versus accuracy as anyone can publish information via social media
  • The blurring of lines where some media stray from the standards of neutrality and rely on opinion rather than fact
  • The consumer’s inability to overcome their own biases to learn the truth

More than misinformation

Young concerned woman reading news on laptop.

The Center for News Literacy points out that a person’s anxiety increases not just with misinformation – unintentional mistakes such as inaccurate statistics – but also with disinformation and malinformation.

Disinformation is when content is fabricated or intentionally manipulated such as in an audio or video to support a conspiracy theory or rumor. Malinformation is the deliberate publication of something for personal or corporate interest rather than the public interest.

Reacting to it all

It’s concerning for Grooms that when consumers have information that is not accurate, they tend to make decisions and judgments that may not protect them or their loved ones.

There’s also the danger of people throwing up their hands because they don’t know what to believe. Or they tune out completely because of the glut of information. With that, important information needed to protect public health can get lost or ignored.

Masks or no masks?

When it comes to COVID-19, the science and benefits behind wearing a mask has been the most perplexing problem for health organizations. Grooms knows the request is confusing. That’s because early in the pandemic, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) didn’t push out the message for everyone to wear a mask. There was a concern individuals would buy up all the medical-grade or surgical masks, further threatening the health and safety of medical workers. But, now it appears the issue has become more political.

“There’s misinformation out there saying masks are not going to protect you. Well, that is right. It may not protect YOU but the whole idea of wearing a mask is to protect the people around you,” Grooms said. “You never know when you’re in public, if the person next to you might be immunocompromised. Or maybe they are at high risk of complications if they were to get sick.”

So what’s the antidote for misinformation?

Grooms recommends getting information directly from reliable sources such as the CDC or your state or local public health departments.

The Center for News Literacy stresses the essence of news literacy is finding actionable – or reliable – information. And always turn to reliable public health agencies for information and direction.

When it comes to social media …

Young African-American man in coffee shop checking news feed on his phone.

On social media, Grooms said consider the source of both the information and the person who is sharing the post. Are they reliable? Is the website link made to appear to be from a reliable news outlet but in fact only mimics the look and allows for a casual reader to be fooled? The Center for News Literacy also recommends asking yourself, what’s the evidence? And what do other outlets say?

“Don’t rely on algorithms, search engine results, number of tweets or ‘what’s trending’ to substitute for your own judgment. All those indicators measure engagement or popularity, not reliability,” the Center states.

As many health experts have recommended, Grooms suggests limiting your time on social media. While online, watch your emotional reaction to posts designed to inflame or to people who are simply misinformed.

Slow down

Further, the Center for News Literacy suggests practicing good information hygiene – don’t share with others before verifying and set an example for others.

“We have to have grace with one another and we have to approach these conversations in a calm manner,” Groom said. “We shouldn’t be pointing the finger at people just because they have some misinformation. It’s very frustrating because when I do see the misinformation it’s often from someone who comes across as very knowledgeable.”

Turn to your own provider

And of course, if you’re not sure what information to believe, connect with your own primary care provider by using your OSF MyChart account. You can send messages to the entire care team asking for guidance.

If you don’t have a primary care provider, visit here to find one near you.

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About Author: Lisa Coon

Lisa Coon is a Writing Coordinator for OSF HealthCare, where she has worked since August 2016.  A Peoria native, she is a graduate of Bradley University with a degree in journalism. Previously, she worked as a reporter and editor at several newspapers in Iowa and Illinois.

She lives in Groveland with her husband and son. In her free time she likes to cook, bake and read. She freely admits that reality TV is a weakness, and she lives by the quote, “The beach is good for the soul.”

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About Author: Colleen Reynolds

Colleen Reynolds is a Media Relations Coordinator and joined OSF HealthCare in July of 2018.
She spent many years as an award-winning reporter for WJBC and WGLT Radio in Bloomington-Normal and remains active in supporting journalism as vice president of the Foundation for the Illinois News Broadcasters Association.
Colleen lives in Bloomington, IL, and is also an active member of the McLean County League of Women Voters where she manages the organization’s Facebook page and works to coordinate educational and voter outreach programming.

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Categories: Mental Health