How to spot fake coronavirus news and choose health advice you can trust
There’s so much conflicting advice on COVID-19 that the World Health Organisation are now calling it an ‘infodemic’. This simple guide will help you choose the right information
Every day we are faced with a bewildering array of facts and figures - not to mention confusing advice - about coronavirus on TV, radio and newspapers, Meanwhile social media is packed with posts, videos and photos.
While much is correct, experts are concerned about a barrage of misinformation coming our way.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) says it is not only fighting a pandemic but also an ‘infodemic’ - an over-abundance of information, some accurate and some not – that makes it hard for people to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance.
Fraudsters may even be profiting from the crisis by stoking up fear and offering false remedies, cures and protection. There’s countless conspiracy theories too.
Social media giants like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter have already started to take action. Now, when you search for COVID-19 information on Facebook, pop-ups on the news feed will direct you to WHO and other respected national health bodies.
Instagram shows similar pop-ups when you tap on a COVID-19 hashtag. Plus, they have begun removing false claims, such as those asserting physical distancing doesn’t help prevent the spread of the coronavirus (it does).
So, how can you navigate this minefield of rumours and remain up- to- date?
These are the sources to trust
Public Health England is an agency of the UK Government’s Department of Health and Social Care, and part of its role is to prepare for and respond to public health emergencies. It has 5,500 staff, mostly scientists, researchers and public health specialists.
National Health Service (NHS) - is the primary health service in the United Kingdom. The NHS website (www.nhs.uk) is the UK's biggest health website, with more than 50 million visits every month.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) - set up in 1948 as a United Nations agency specialising in public health, the WHO has more than 7,000 people working in 150 countries, with a headquarters in Geneva. One of its roles is to help its 194 member states deal with health emergencies such as Covid-19, Ebola and deadly measles outbreaks. It’s got a team countering false information from social media, replacing it with evidenced-based material.
The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control(ECDC) is another respected international agency while The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is part of the US Government, based in Atlanta, which responds to health threats, specialising in infectious diseases.
5 questions that help you spot fake news
- Where has it come from? First, check if the information is on the websites of these agencies. If not, find out whether it’s been forwarded or is in a chain message that hasn’t come directly from a friend.
- How does it start? Look closely at the language. Typical fake news circulating on WhatsApp about COVID-19 starts with “A friend who has an uncle in Wuhan” or “A friend whose dad works at the Centre for Disease Control.” ‘Just Received’ is also a starter. In one case, a WhatsApp message was sent out beginning like this, citing a University of Vienna study about a link between ibuprofen and increased mortality – but the university sent out a firm denial.
- What’s the language like? Bad grammar and spelling errors suggest it’s fake - reputable sources will always ensure their information is written in correct language.
- Is it peddling a product? Beware if an expert is specifically recommending a branded product - they may not be independent and could have a vested interest in recommending it.
- Does it check out? Spotting fake news is not a passive activity. You have to do your own fact-checking. There are some excellent websites to help with this, such as Fullfact, the BBC’s Reality Check and a global database of Corona falsehoods in 45 countries spearheaded by the Poynter Institute.
Want to delve deeper?
Here are 5 ways to analyse scientific evidence
If you’re more scientifically minded, you may want to understand more about where the information you’re reading has come from.
Health information is often based on scientific research that has been interpreted by journalists and writers. But if you want to delve deeper into its origin, you can go straight to the source of the research or evidence, which is usually a scientific journal where it has been published.
However, keep in mind that not all scientific research is created equal. Here are some key ways you can spot high quality research you can trust.
- Know the leading medical journals Rely on research that has been published in leading medical journals such as The Lancet, the New England Journal of Medicine, the British Medical Journal, the Journal of the American Medical Association. Good news is, most of these now have dedicated coronavirus information hubs to help you.
- Look for randomised controlled trials Lots of new research is going on into the new coronavirus to find tests, treatments and vaccines. To work out whether it’s meaningful, look at the type of research it is – the gold standard is a randomised controlled trial (RCT) which is double blinded. This is where the participants studied are chosen randomly and separated out into an active arm, which are given the drug or supplement being studied, and a control arm, where they might be given a placebo or an existing treatment. Double blinded means the doctors, and the patients, don’t know which arm they are on.
- Is it independent or funded privately? Ask whether the study is done by the maker of the drug, or is it independent, such as this National Institutes of Health study on an anti-viral agent against covid-19. Is it a very early study? Is it done on animals or people? If people, how many? The larger the better. If the study is only done on animals, it likely won’t be as meaningful.
- Look for a meta-analysis It sounds confusing but it’s not. A meta-analysis is simply where the researchers have looked at a large body of scientific research on a certain subject and come up with conclusions.
- And systematic reviews These also look at wider research and make conclusions. A well-respected organisation that does these is the Cochrane Library. They too have a fantastic space dedicated to all things COVID-19 that’s worth checking out. Their review on the use of Vitamin C for example, looked at all the evidence and concluded that it can only help shorten the duration of cold symptoms, but not prevent them altogether.
If it’s too good to be true, check it
We’ve been hearing about the need to test, test, test – but to protect ourselves we need to check, check, check.
‘The fact-checking community has been working very hard, day and night, since January to point out falsehoods about the new coronavirus,’ says Cristina Tardáguila, the International Fact-Checking Network Associate Director. Now you can do it too.
What should I do next?
- Look for research in respected scientific journals on large numbers of people.
- Check out a claim on a fact-checking website such as Fullfact, the BBC’s Reality Check and a global database of Corona falsehoods spearheaded by the Poynter Institute
- Be wary of language. If the post starts with ‘A friend?’, is from a chain or has been forwarded - it probably can’t be trusted.
- Be wary of bad grammar and spelling errors - reputable sources will always be written in correct language.