Coronavirus: Are You Stuck in Your Echo Chamber?

Written by Suzanne Lee, Research Assistant in Cornell’s Social Media Lab & Information Science MPS Class of 2020

Photo by Amin Moshrefi on Unsplash

The novel coronavirus (COVID-19) is a rapidly spreading respiratory virus that originated from Wuhan, Mainland China in late 2019. Since the virus was not well contained in its early developments, it escalated into the current global pandemic by quickly spreading through person-to-person interactions. It has also caused non-essential businesses to lose revenue, schools to move their teachings online, and people to practice social distancing. Each day brings forth new information and developments; you can keep up with these updates using The New York Times Coronavirus Live Updates.

In the U.S., people are strongly encouraged to remain home. Students and workers are now working from home to avoid leaving the house. It is recommended that you should only go out if absolutely necessary. For instance, hanging out with your friends is not a valid reason for why you should be going out. This is because the virus easily spreads by being in the atmosphere or being present on a surface. As human beings, we touch our faces a lot. Most of the time, we aren’t even aware. In fact, according to a NIH study, the average amount that a person touches their own face is about 23 times an hour. Yikes!

Since most severe cases have been the elderly and those with compromised health conditions, some people, especially parts of the younger generation, scoffed at the situation as they mistakenly believed that the virus isn’t deadly to them. Although younger people who catch the virus are more likely to recover or have mild symptoms, they pose a risk to the rest of society by spreading the virus to people at higher health risks. Further complicating matters, some people have a delayed development of or never develop external symptoms like coughing. Thus, no one really knows how safe they are, regardless of their age or having compromised health conditions. One case of this 17 year old teen, who did not have previous health conditions, passed on due to cardiac arrest linked to the virus.

With this in mind, it is equally important to keep up to date about what’s happening with COVID-19 it is to ensure your information is reliable and objective. With the internet, you have a plethora of information within the reach of your fingertips. Unfortunately, alongside the factual information, there is a lot of misinformation from rumors and conspiracy theories.

Here are a few that were particularly problematic or widespread :

  • The virus is from the “wet-markets” in China and from exotic bat soup. (*Note: the exact origin of the virus is not confirmed, although research and investigations point to the “wet-markets” as a likely origin. Source: CDC’s About COVID-19 as of July 16, 2020)
  • Bill Gates is responsible for the outbreak.
  • All Chinese/Asian people have the virus and you need to stay away.
  • African Americans are immune.
  • Drink bleach. It cures the virus.
  • The virus is actually a bio-weapon created by China.

Here are some more articles about the spread of these rumors:

Some of these rumors sound ridiculous, but there are people who believe them and have taken part in hazardous activities such as drinking bleach mistakenly believing that they can get rid of the virus from their bodies. Rumors like these are especially dangerous, as they seem to spread as quickly as the virus does. In reality, drinking bleach will give you poisoning and respiratory problems. Here’s more on why you should not drink bleach.

Misinformation and Echo Chambers

Where is this misinformation coming from? How and why has it spread so easily during this pandemic? Rumors, hoaxes, and conspiracy theories tend to spread when there is a lack of information to the public. People tend to create their own reasonings and explanations to fill what they don’t know. They share their explanations to society and some people agree. Then these people share their newly obtained, incorrect knowledge to their social circles. In one’s own social circle, there are like-minded people who are more likely to believe the information they get from their friends without a second thought. This sharing cycle continues, and conflicting information often goes disregarded. In other words, people are stuck in echo chambers, a metaphoric “chamber” or closed network where one repeatedly hears opinions similar to their own to confirm or validate their existing beliefs.

Echo chambers exist whenever there is a sharing of information. As you can imagine, there are many platforms where people share information and as a result, can get stuck in one. Take Reddit as an example. Each subreddit can be seen as an echo chamber because of how group-approved information gets echoed and upvoted, whereas the opposing views are often shamed and downvoted by the group. Due to these mechanisms, people are consistently exposed to similar information, with a limited exposure to alternative viewpoints, and after a few times of hearing the same things, they begin to believe what they hear is true. Additionally, researchers Cinelli et al. look into how users have a tendency to be selective of their information consumption and exposure on Facebook.

Can you escape your echo chamber? Yes! You can utilize reliable sources to differentiate between fact and fiction. To do this, you can fact check by reading reliable sources, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which is a nationwide public health institute of the United States. They regularly roll out new information to inform the public of the COVID19 status (and other diseases). Social media platforms such as Instagram, Twitter, or Facebook should not be used as your primary source of information.

Here are other reliable sources you can look into:

So, for the safety of you and everyone else around you, please keep yourself informed.

To better equip yourself and improve on your fact checking skills, here is a great set of resources to help you:

If you are interested in learning more about the coronavirus, check out some of these articles (Remember to fact check)!

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