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How Kansas City Residents Can Avoid Falling For Bad Information About Coronavirus

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Media experts warn that Facebook posts spreading misinformation and scams are making the response to the coronavirus even more problematic.

Media experts say better news literacy was needed before the recent outbreak of the COVID-19 virus. But the rapid spread of misinformation along with the disease itself, they say, has created a different kind of pandemic.

KCUR is tracking the latest coronavirus developments in the Kansas City region on our live blog. But we also wanted some answers for how you can avoid misinformation online during these unsettled times.

The answers we got are condensed from a discussion led by KCUR’s Gina Kaufmann which originally aired Monday, March 16, on our talk show “Special Coverage: Coronavirus In KC," which airs daily at 9 a.m. on KCUR.

1. Watch out for scams

Lisa McLendon, a professor at the William Allen White School of Journalism at KU, says much of the false information she is seeing spread online is coming from those wanting to promote their own pills, health programs and unproven cures for profit.

And the uncertainty and panic people are feeling can leave them more susceptible than usual to these types of scams.

“Everybody is concerned about health. Not a lot of people in the grand scheme of things are super into politics, but everybody cares about their health. And so there's a lot of bad health information out there,” said McLendon.

Myths about the virus have snowballed in recent weeks. KCUR health reporter Alex Smith said the most dangerous has been the spread of the idea that the novel coronavirus is no different than the seasonal flu.

“There have been a lot of politicians and other critics who've been saying otherwise and really undermining some very important messages and actions from health experts and local leaders,” said Smith.

2. Check a post’s source

The virus is considered so new that scientists are still trying to understand it. While there has been a lot of research done in just the past three months, information about the virus is still limited.

Despite this, there has been an influx of emails and social media posts from people claiming to have inside information or special knowledge about the virus.

KCUR’s Smith said if it seems too good to be true, it probably is.

“Unless you know the source and you know it's coming from doctors or researchers, honestly, none of that is worth paying attention to,” said Smith.

Consumers should also keep an eye out for attributions when reading a story online. If there is a number quoted, it should say where it came from. If not, that’s a red flag.

“If somebody just throws out a statistic with no attribution, it may be sloppy, but it may also be wrong,” said McLendon of KU.

She also said to make sure these sources are reputable, like a government agency or trusted media outlet. These organizations are already required to fact-check any information they put out.

3. Double-check links and pictures

McLendon says fact-checking links online before you share them is key to preventing the spread of misinformation. She says consumers should be asking themselves hard questions when reading stories online.

“Like, where did this originally come from? Who says this? And if we don't know who says it, don't believe it,” said McLendon.

If you know who shared the article, make sure they have the right qualifications. For example, a plastic surgeon or psychiatrist will not have the knowledge of someone with a background in public health to talk about infectious disease.

There are also tools online that consumers can use to check out links. Images like memes are often reused or taken out of context. Using Google to do a reverse-image search can be used to verify the origin of an image and may help you assess its credibility.

“This is really good for pictures that get circulated that say, ‘Oh my gosh, you know, here's patients stacked up in the hallway of a hospital in Italy,” said McLendon. “You can save that picture and do a reverse image search and find out that, no, actually it's from five years ago when there were floods in India.”

There are also fact-checking sites, like Snopes or FactCheck.org, that can be used to verify information found online.

4. Call out misinformation when you see it

If you see something in your network that raises any red flags, McLendon said it’s your responsibility to be that person who fact checks your friends.

“It's a little awkward to do that and your friend might get mad at the beginning, but it's really good to let people know that they're spreading something that is wrong that could be potentially harmful for people,” she said.

It may be as simple as letting someone know that the story they shared has been debunked by a fact-checking site, or the image they posted is misleading.

Jodi Fortino is a news intern at KCUR.

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