The COVID-19 pandemic is accompanied by an unprecedented infodemic — the viral spread of false information about the disease and our response to it. To date, at least 600 people have died attempting deadly coronavirus “cures”, such as drinking bootleg alcohol or bleach.
Reporting on coronavirus-related disinformation responsibly is no easy feat, but I’ve put together some handy tips for journalists and fact-checkers on how to fight the infodemic without inadvertently amplifying it.
1. If you are fact-checking, do not frame your headline as a question❓
As tempting as it is to use a question in the headline to get more hits, avoiding it could help reach audiences beyond your echo chamber.
A case in point, if you come across an article with a headline “Can large doses of vitamin C prevent or help to treat COVID-19?” and you’ve already read somewhere else that it can, you will simply presume the answer is yes and keep scrolling assuming no new information will be presented.
That is especially the case with media outlets that are outside of someone’s natural media diet. Instead, when debunking disinformation, try and debunk it in the headline: “No, megadoses of vitamin C will not cure coronavirus”.
2. Use the truth-sandwich method 🥪
If you are reporting on disinformation, use the so-called ‘truth sandwich’ method developed by the author of “Don’t Think Of An Elephant” Dr. George Lakoff. “Truth sandwich” is a framing tool, which recommends starting and concluding any form of communication that involves discussing a false claim with truthful statements.
For example, if you are debunking a claim that drinking bleach can help prevent or cure COVID-19, frame your statement by outright saying that bleach is poisonous and should never be ingested.
Make sure to close by re-stating the truth again — drinking bleach will not cure, nor prevent someone from getting the coronavirus.
According to Dr. Lakoff, it is the first and last things we hear that frame our understanding of the issue.
3. Close content gaps 🔐
Frequently, the reason why disinformation succeeds in gaining traction is the lack of quality content on a trending topic, which instead is filled with rumors, conspiracies, or disinformation.
The pseudo link between 5G and coronavirus is a good example of a content gap, which conspiracy theorists filled with bad information. In the absence of quality content explaining the 5G technology and its impact on health, those concerned or unfamiliar with 5G were easily convinced it was harmful.
If you come across a previously unidentified content gap, try and fill it by producing easily digestible content on the subject.
4. If it’s not reaching an audience, don’t give it a megaphone 📣
All too often, journalists will find an outrageous conspiracy theory in the depths of 4chan no one’s ever heard of before and bring it into the mainstream by reporting or debunking it. This gives conspiracies and other types of bad information undue attention, which research shows, can even turn into false memories.
Journalists working in large media outlets have the power to turn obscure stories into national or international news. Do not give conspiracy theorists a megaphone by reporting on or debunking their content unless it is reaching a real and vulnerable audience or is life-threatening. Instead, debunk it where you find it — be it on 4chan boards or in the comment section of a misleading social media post.
5. Do not quote social media accounts if you cannot verify their identities🎭
Embedding tweets and other social media posts from ordinary users into digital media articles has become a commonplace practice that is being exploited by malicious actors seeking to build up a following or troll the media. No matter how popular or newsworthy the tweet, unless you can verify the identity of the person behind it, do not embed it in your article.
6. Do not link to disinformation 🔗
When reporting on disinformation, do not link to the websites or blogs spreading it. If you want your readers to see the false claim in its original form, archive it and link it to its archived version or take a screenshot, but do not link to the original website.
Linking to sites spreading malicious content generates clicks for them and might even boost their content in Google Search results, further increasing its reach.
7. Learn basic digital verification skills 👩🏫
If you use social media content in your reporting, but don’t feel comfortable verifying it, spend some time learning from the digital sleuths! There are hundreds of *free* resources out there, check out First Draft, DFR Lab or Bellingcat to get started!
Stay safe ❤
Donara Barojan is disinformation and strategic communications expert