The outbreak of the novel coronavirus across the globe and resulting impact on the lives of billions of people has highlighted the necessity for accurate information relating to the devastating pandemic. But how can individuals even start to process the vast amount of information being disseminated?
To get some pointers, ABC News spoke with experts that focus on combating the spread of false information.
Slow down and be skeptical before sharing information and consult trusted sources
The unsettling nature of the coronavirus outbreak can hinder our ability to think critically, said Claire Wardle, co-founder of First Draft, an organization whose self-described mission is to "empower societies with accurate information in critical moments," so we need to pause before sharing information, ask ourselves why we might want to share it and be sure the content is from trusted authorities such as the CDC or reputable news organizations.
"The most important thing is recognizing if you have an emotional response to information. So, if you see something and it makes you angry or it makes you want to cry or it makes you want to go and buy something as a response to that, then you need to kind of take a breath," Wardle said
"Right now we need to recognize that everything we share has the power to influence people’s behavior," she added.
Passing on personal anecdotes from others also can carry a risk given the facts and details can be difficult to verify, even if sharing the information is not malicious in nature, according to Wardle.
Eoghan Sweeney, a Berlin-based digital media consultant who runs OSINT Essentials, agrees.
"Often they come to us through a friend, family member or contact on social media, and there can be a tendency to take things more seriously from such sources, which matters greatly when there's potentially very dangerous info going around out there," Sweeney said in an exchange with ABC News. "It's also often not clear where they got this info -- it may just have been that they saw it on someone else's timeline, thought it looked interesting, and hit the share button," he wrote.
Sweeney, who notes that a simple web search can be useful to initially vet information, has shared graphics that offer quick pointers to consider before sharing information.
Understand that we don’t know everything about the coronavirus
One of the unique challenges about information relating to the coronavirus is that government and health authorities do not yet have a complete understanding of the virus. This means -- at points -- best practices and guidance from trusted organizations can change.
"Nobody right now has all the answers that are going to be perfect from week to week," Wardle said during a discussion that referenced the CDC’s shifting guidance on face-coverings." That doesn't mean we should lose trust in those institutions."
"This is probably like none of us have ever faced in terms of (an) information challenge in our lifetime," Sweeney added. "It’s been instinctive for us to look for something from official or expert sources. Now the whole situation with coronavirus is such that what the experts and official sources are telling us has been changing from one week to the next ... that's not necessarily in bad faith, it's that what they know changes."
What to know about coronavirus:
- How it started and how to protect yourself: Coronavirus explained
- What to do if you have symptoms: Coronavirus symptoms
- Tracking the spread in the U.S. and worldwide: Coronavirus map
Everyone can play a part in helping to stop the spread of false information
If you feel comfortable, talk with friends and family members if you see they are spreading information that is not true. Ignoring the spread of false information is not the answer, says Wardle, but take a gentle approach when having these conversations.
"We have to get back to, as a society, of holding each other to account when people are sharing false information as opposed to ignoring them," Wardle said.
"There are ways to do it that doesn't shame somebody," she added.
For those users interested in a deeper dive, ABC News has previously published a guide to spotting disinformation and First Draft has collated helpful resources related to online verification and coronavirus.