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Recognizing COVID-19 Misinformation - a pop-up info lit mini-course : Help Stop Information Disorder

Helping to stop the spread of misinformation

Rebecca Cotton (2020) provides excellent ideas for making progress against misinformation.

What we can all do:

Misinformation often spreads faster than real news and reaches a wider audience. It’s also becoming increasingly difficult to identify. The first step in addressing misinformation is acknowledgement: all of us contribute to the problem, and we must all take ownership to stop it. As long as misinformation remains an issue for “the other” to solve—Gen Z, Boomers, Facebook, Millennials, in-laws—it will persist.

We won’t catch all the misinformation streaming past us. But before you re-share that tweet, or tell a friend about that surprising headline you saw, ask yourself three questions:

  1. Where’s it from? Look for the source and be careful of fake copycat websites.To find out more about a website try this fact-checking tip: type a search that looks like site -site:url in a search engine. Example: eureka alert

  2. What’s missing? Do the headline and article match? Are other news organizations talking about it?

  3. How do you feel? If a headline or article sparks an intense emotion like fear, anger, or vindication, be watchful. That’s a common tactic from someone trying to manipulate you, not from someone trying to spread reputable news.

Other things to consider:

  • Learn who to trust. An unfortunate consequence of disinformation vigilance can be censorship through noise. If vigilance leads us to distrust every headline, then those promoting disinformation are succeeding. This means we are less likely to receive information that is accurate and informative. Learning who generally produces accurate information is as important as carefully examining unknown sources. The American Press Institute offers "Six questions that will tell you what media to trust."

  • Genre matters. It’s not just satirical Onion articles that get shared as a “news.” Be mindful of the differences in presentation, fact-checking protocol, and accountability standards between peer-reviewed research, fact-checked news articles, personal opinion pieces and talk shows, and various forms of satire, propaganda, and gossip.

  • One effective way to end disinformation campaigns is to label them. While you might not want to engage with the comment thread debates on social media (in fact some research indicates that such public corrections can amplify or increase inaccuracy), consider making a comment or sending a private message to friends and family members when they share a post that you suspect is false or misleading.  And be responsive to the same feedback from others!  

  • Communicate to elected officials that protection from disinformation campaigns is important to you.

  • Develop a nuanced understanding of the relationship between free speech and disinformation. Consider: Does (or should) the Constitution offer paid commercial or political ads the same free speech protections as individuals? Does freedom of speech also include the freedom to receive information? If so, does disinformation threaten that right? Who (if anyone) should be responsible for tracking/tagging false information? Should there be limits to web anonymity or author disclosure requirements?

Cotton, R., 2020. Misinformation, Disinformation, Fake News: Why Do We Care? Office of Government Relations, Episcopal Church [online ] Available at: [Accessed 3 April 2020].


Tips for having difficult conversations about misinformation

It can feel overwhelming to consider confronting misinformation, especially if the person sharing it is someone you know. Even if it's a stranger online, it can be a little scary to open yourself to counter criticism. Here are some tips for using empathy and emotional intelligence to navigate a difficult conversation:

  • Be curious. You don't necessarily know where the person is coming from, even if you know them well. Ask "I'm curious to know what makes you say that?" or "I'm wondering, where can I find that information?" It can also be helpful to understand why they trust the source they are using, so you might ask, "Why did you choose that source?"
  • Be compassionate. The person you're speaking with is only human, just like you. It's likely they don't mean to share misinformation.
  • Be humble. Stopping misinformation isn't about proving other people wrong, it's about empowering people to spot misinformation.
  • Be gentle. Remember you are just opening a dialogue, not trying to single-handedly stamp out misinformation. Adopting a "we're all in this together" approach may help the other person feel less defensive. 
  • Be empathetic. COVID-19 is causing a great deal of stress, anxiety, worry, fear. Remember that misinformation triggers these emotions.
    • Examine how you're feeling about the misinformation and consider that the person you're speaking with about it probably feels some of the same negative emotions.
    • Validate the person's emotions, but don't validate incorrect facts. Example. "It sounds like you're really worried. which is completely understandable. Let me look into this (or I've looked into this) and I'll let you know what I find (I found )."
  • Be mindful. Try to stay in the moment. If you find yourself predicting how the conversation will go, jumping to conclusions, or thinking about what to say as the other person is speaking, bring yourself back to being present to what they ARE saying. Stop and check your emotions before you respond. Taking a deep breath can help you pause before you speak.
  • Be open. Sometimes, new information sounds like misinformation, but upon examination, turns out to be true. Remember or review your information literacy tools. Ask questions. You may even ask to postpone discussing further until you've had time to evaluate the information.
  • Be safe. Even if you are being skillful and intentional in a difficult conversationit may escalate. If you feel yourself getting angry or anxious, or observe the other person's emotions ratcheting up, acknowledge that and stop. "It feels like this is too upsetting for us to discuss right now. Can we revisit this another time when we've both had time to think it over?" 
  • Be hopeful. You've taken a powerful step by learning to recognize misinformation and willing to talk about it. Each step is progress!

Here are some examples of ways to broach the topic of misinformation:

If you're not sure about the information: "I'm curious to know where I can find out more about this. Can you please point me to the source?"

If you've already identified that it's misinformation: "I can understand why this worries you. I've looked into it, and here's what I found."

If the person is too convinced, rather than worried, to hear you: check out Colin Dickey's "How to Talk to a Conspiracy Theorist." 

Take control of your news

Take care of yourself

Information disorder can make us feel helpless, frustrated or confused, and can impact our mental health.  Learning to recognize misinformation is an empowering way to take care of yourself and others. For more resources, and support for being at home during COVID-19, see MCC Library's Well-Being In Stressful Times guide. 

Self-care ideas

Countering vaccine hesitancy & misinformation

While vaccine misinformation can be countered using the tools in this guide, vaccine hesitancy or vaccine refusal is a different kind of challenge. Here are two sources of expert information that can help you understand and talk confidently about vaccine hesitancy.

MCC senior nursing student Steve Diem made these videos in January 2021 on vaccine basics and why getting a COVID-19 vaccine is a good idea. 

How to spot fake news from

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