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How to spot disinformation about the coronavirus pandemic

Dr. Len O'Kelly warns that sharing disinformation on social media is as dangerous as spreading the virus to others

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — Information about the coronavirus pandemic is everywhere, and it's flooding social media feeds 24 hours a day, seven days a week. But is all of this information correct?

13 ON YOUR SIDE spoke to the Dr. Len O'Kelly, assistant director of the school of communications at Grand Valley State University. He says a great deal of the information shared on social media is 'disinformation,' and he shared tips for navigating through information to determine which is false. 

“Sometimes its more difficult to identify false information on the internet because you may get it from somebody you trust tremendously,” O'Kelly says. "Disinformation is something that’s put out intentionally to mislead the public. When someone is intentionally trying to mislead the public, to get them to believe something purposefully that is untrue, that falls under disinformation and it can be very dangerous in a time like this.”

Dr. O'Kelly says while social media platforms claim they are taking steps to lessen the spread of false information, the only real way to stop it, is for users to stop sharing it. 

“It’s okay to second guess people even if they’re close to you. And absolutely you have to do your research before passing something along, he says. “Any social media platform wants people to spend more time on that platform and they're not going to do anything to convince people not to do that. So they may say ‘oh we’re looking out for you,' but they really want you to keep scrolling so you see more of the paid content that’s going to be put forth so I take with a grain any effort where they say oh we’re absolutely looking out to remove the false information. If everybody stops posting on Facebook for a day, there’s nothing to read and people stop coming."

Here's what Dr. Len O'Kelly suggests readers do to determine if the information is correct:

  1. What website did it come from?
    If it’s a .gov site it's probably safe, If it’s a .org site usually you can trust it. But if it’s a .com site you should be careful. Remember that 'com' means 'commercial.' 
  2. Who wrote the information?
     "If there is no name listed as an author on a piece it’s a lot less credible, O'Kelly says. "If someone is willing to put their name on their reporting, that means they’re more likely to be standing behind it.”
  3. Are experts cited in the information?
    If so, research their credential.
    Dr. O'Kelly says, "I have a doctorate in journalism and media studies, I am not an expert on the spread of disease, right? Just because I have a degree next to my name, it's in the wrong area. So you want to make sure that the sources you’re sending around to people, are actually experts in the field they are claiming to speak about.”
  4. Don't be swayed by commenters on social media.
  5. Remember that false and potentially dangerous information can spread as easily as the coronavirus.

“I see a lot of people putting masks on when they go to the grocery store because they don’t want to spread the virus. Think about putting a mask on your social media sites as well. Not sharing things around that are ultimately going to cause harm to somebody else, It spreads in much the same way.  In fact the term 'going viral' comes from viral, the study of disease. They follow the exact same path.”

To access verified information about the coronavirus outbreak and other viral topics, check out our Verify page.

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