Experts address current “infodemic”

Experts from the University of Washington and Washington State University discussed the prevalence of misinformation during the spread of the coronavirus and how to combat it at a streaming event Thursday.

The online event, “Surviving the Coronavirus Infodemic,” was hosted by the UW Center of an Informed Public and included panelists who specialize in communication, data science and digital literacy. Viewers joined the conversation by submitting questions during the event.

The uncertainty during the coronavirus pandemic leads individuals to gather information in order to ease their anxiety, said Kate Starbird, UW Human Centered Design and Engineering associate professor.

“The event itself is not resolved,” she said. “The underlying understanding [of COVID-19] is changing every day and feeding this mill of anxiety.”

People should slow down and assess their own strong emotions evoked by information, Starbird said. This can enable individuals to see false claims and slow the spread of misinformation.

She said when a lot of people are getting messages that are not true, it can create a wide-spread environment of falsities. These inaccuracies may lead others to buy medicine others need or not follow social distancing mandates, Starbird said.

Mike Caulfield, WSU Vancouver Blended and Networked Learning director, said people may have to change their information diet when they notice misinformation.

“It’s what about you unconsciously consume, in addition to what you consciously consume,” he said.

People should get rid of false claims in their feed before they build a belief from it because “the best situation is to not be in that situation,” Caulfield said. The stakes are high relative to misinformation during a pandemic.

“The difference between having the right information and wrong information right now can be a matter of life and death,” he said.

The public needs to figure out why certain things spread and introduce ways to change behavior that is quick to accept false information, Caulfield said.

Similar to slowing the spread of a virus, he said, the “infodemic” requires a multipronged approach. The biggest thing individuals can do is stop and ask themselves what they know about a source and its claim before they share it.

Jevin West, UW Information School associate professor, said answers for something like a pandemic do not come fast. He said science is not “comfortable in the fast lane” and misinformation may be spread when it moves too quickly.

“The biological virus has already done enough damage, and we don’t need any more [from the infodemic],” West said.

People need to think more and share less, said Porismita Borah, WSU Murrow College of Communication associate professor. Scientific findings relative to the coronavirus are evolving frequently, she said, and it makes knowledge of the virus seem unreliable. By reflecting on information, individuals can become less vulnerable to fake news.

“Misinformation strives in places like this,” she said. “Make sure you are cross-checking your information through many sources.”