Navigating Misinformation in the Time of COVID-19

Marci McCue / August 19, 2020

John Silva, senior director of education and training for the News Literacy Project

As the senior director of education and training for the News Literacy Project, John Silva knows a thing or two about misinformation and how to spot it. We talked to him at the height of the shelter in place orders for the coronavirus pandemic, and since then, with the election looming, the problem of misinformation seems to have only gotten worse. Silva helps us sort fact from fiction and arms us with the tools and knowledge to be able to spot it for ourselves. Some of the questions have been edited for brevity and clarity.

What does news literacy mean in this era?

So in the broadest sense, news literacy is knowing what’s reliable and what’s not. We say it’s about sorting fact from fiction, but probably a more important part of that is also knowing how to identify and be informed from responsible news organizations and journalists that follow the standards of quality journalism. 

Got it. Now, what does the coronavirus bring into the mix? 

That’s actually a lot more complicated than I think a lot of people realize. It’s the perfect storm of misinformation because you have rumors and hoaxes. You have straight up political misinformation and propaganda. You’ve got crazy conspiracy theories. They’re all coming together in different ways to influence people — and it’s making things so much harder because we are all a little uncertain. Add to that a scientific topic that a lot of people don’t understand.

What we don’t talk about enough is that while we are self-isolating and social distancing, we can’t maintain our social connections. So we are turning to social media to maintain those connections, and social media is where so much of this misinformation is so easily spread. 

What’s a news consumer to do? How can you separate fact from fiction?

The basic lessons of news literacy suggest focusing on a couple of key things that can apply to any situation. The first one that I always try to emphasize is: be aware of your emotional response. If you’re having a strong emotional response to some piece of information that shows up on your feed, that’s a warning sign that you are probably being manipulated or misled in some way. ‘Cause that’s what misinformation and propaganda do: they try to provoke a reaction. The second thing is if you’re trying to be informed, know the difference and prioritize news over opinion pieces. There’s so much commentary out there, people trying to persuade us of different things.

One of the important pieces of prioritizing news is looking for reputable news organizations and journalists and sources that are trying to present the facts: information that has been verified and identifying the sources of that information. That can be a news organization. That could be an official government source, maybe a university or a medical organization, scientists. There’s all sorts of people trying to give us good information. 

What sources does your organization recommend as trustworthy?

Well, generally we try not to recommend any one particular news organization over another. We emphasize the need to keep informed from multiple sources. The more comfortable we can be with getting news from multiple sources, the better informed we’re going to be. 

Quite honestly, in my personal recommendation, when I talk to educators about this question, part of [the answer] is looking for news aggregators like Flipboard, Smart News and Apple News, because they’re not trying to show you just one or two sources. But you still need to evaluate the information. 

On top of that, look for official sources of information. So, for example, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The official government sources. But also consider looking for expert sources where you can verify their bona fides. If you can find a medical organization that has infectious disease experts and they’re telling you about these things, that’s part of this sort of selection of multiple sources that you can get information from.

Does NLP  have a recommendation in terms of frequency of checking the news — so that you can stay informed but you don’t necessarily get overwhelmed or panicky?

My organization doesn’t, but I think if I were to give a personal recommendation, it would be “less is probably more.” The challenge is that if we start down a path, the social media algorithms and web search algorithms will start recognizing patterns, and we just may end up finding ourselves down a rabbit hole that we didn’t even really intend to go down. ‘Cause it’s really easy. The more you’re looking for information, the more these algorithms are going to try to feed you what it thinks you want to see. And so, honestly, I think with something as important as COVID-19 and being informed about the pandemic [and the protests] — all those things — is to find a few really reliable sources and set up a news alert or follow them on Twitter and have Twitter notify you when they put something out there. You don’t necessarily need to be constantly looking for information.

These days, conspiracy theories and other forms of misinformation are spreading faster than ever. Why do you think that’s happening?

Part of it goes back to the nature of how things go viral on social media in general. If you read up on rumor theory, we have this part of our human nature called “shared sense-making.” That when we’re trying to understand something that’s going on or something that’s important. 

When we find a piece of information, we feel compelled to share it with people so that we can come together. We’re very social animals in that respect. That’s something that’s been around for a very long time. We spread rumors, we gossip…that’s part of being human. Social media amplifies that because social media is created in such a way that we have an additional compulsion to share because we want to make sure we get the likes and the retweets and the comments.

When you have something as important as this pandemic, and it happens every time there’s a major breaking news event when people find some piece of information that they think is important, they feel compelled to share it to whatever their network or whatever their grouping is. The really distressing part of this situation is that, normally when there’s a big breaking news event, it has a fairly short cycle. But this one is bigger because it’s continually affecting all of us.

So now, as we’re learning these new pieces of information, as new conspiracy theories pop up, as new pieces of misinformation pop up, we have that compulsion to share. What I mentioned earlier remains key: If you have that emotional reaction, take a step back and evaluate it. Most people are missing that. We’re just like, “I can’t believe this,” and it gets shared right away. Then you have that moment of regret later…because once you put it out there it’s hard to take back. 

How does one become a more critical reader when they do feel that emotional response trigger? 

I encourage you to think about where you’re getting your news and information from. People will say, I don’t trust information from that news organization because they are conservative or they’re liberal. And we’re trying to get people to challenge themselves with that and be open to recognizing opinion vs. news coverage. You can identify political leaning from their commentary and in their opinion pieces. But if you look at their news content, generally you can ask yourself if they’re being informative and following those standards of quality journalism.

That gets back to the importance of differentiating news and opinion. If we can separate those two and then be open to getting information from other sources, that’s a really great first step for a lot of us. That’s how we get out of our filter bubbles and our echo chambers. Because that’s where a lot of us find ourselves, watching and reading the things that we agree with. But in a filter bubble, it’s really hard to be fully informed. 

If being good news consumers starts with understanding what’s opinion vs. news, what are some tips on identifying the differences?

Identifying opinion pieces is a challenge these days. Sometimes there are very clear things to look for, such as inflammatory language, first-person tone, hyperbole, and exaggeration. News in a lot of ways is the absence of all of those things. If you can identify what makes something an opinion piece, that’s a start. We also talk about quality journalism and the standards that ethical, responsible journalists and news organizations follow to make sure that what they’re presenting is fact-based news. This means the information has been verified, it provides context to the story. The reporter uses multiple quality sources with transparency and accountability, and it’s written to be informative not inflammatory. While it does require a little extra work, those are things to look for as you evaluate your own news consumption. An especially important lens to put things through these days. 

Someone in your position probably has seen it all when it comes to misinformation. Is there anything about this era that’s surprised you?

With COVID-19, one thing that surprised me was a Pew Research study that said 30% of people surveyed believe the virus had been created in a lab; that it had been manufactured in some way. And I noticed that younger people tended to believe that more than older people. That is actually opposite from the trends we’ve seen in misinformation in the last several years, we tend to see older people spreading myths, misinformation and conspiracy theories more than young people. So that surprised me.

The other unfortunate thing is that there is going to be a persistent misinformation problem for a long time to come. Beliefs about the pandemic are becoming intertwined with our social and political identities. It’s now another factor in the polarization of our society, another way that creates an “us vs them”. This is made worse as we get closer to election day. What’s particularly shocking is how strongly people hold onto beliefs – especially conspiracy theories – even in the face of overwhelming contradictory evidence. We believe so strongly about social and political causes, we’ve lost the ability to engage in discourse, to share our ideas – especially in politics. Beliefs have become their own kinds of facts and we defend them vigorously. 

So, taking a step back, are you an optimist or pessimist about our information future?

I am very much an optimist. We have a generation of young people who have grown up with technology and, in particular social media, and have a comfort level that many of us don’t have. Some of the trends that I’ve seen are that young people can be fooled by misinformation, but they really don’t like it when they figure it out. They have a strong reaction and will actively work against it, becoming activists in their own way.Young people will work to debunk myths and push back, because that’s what they love to do. Young people don’t want to be manipulated, and they are seeing themselves as part of the solution. So I’m very much an optimist. 

The other side of that coin is that we’ve also seen huge interest from educators across the country—wanting to teach news literacy and make it part of civics curriculum. There’s a growing emphasis and recognition for the importance of civics as part of our kids’ education. We’ve seen an increase in teachers using our programs and we’ve removed barriers to access by making all of our classroom resources free, including the Checkology virtual classroom. Educators are eager for this because they are realizing that young people have a right to news literacy education so they can learn to be reliably informed independently. We are on a mission to provide tools to young people and educators, so yes, I’m optimistic that we can create a generation of smart news consumers and critical thinkers. It’s more important than ever.

—Marci McCue, head of content and marketing communications, is reading Freedom of the Press, curated by the News Literacy Project team 

Our Q&A with John Silva was inspired by our passion for access to quality information and the perils of misinformation. For educators looking to incorporate news literacy into their curriculum, we encourage you to look at the programs The News Literacy Project offers and talk to other educators about their work with tools like Checkology.