By Dave Segal [San Juan Silver Stage, March 2020]
How do we know what to believe about the COVID-19 pandemic? Rumors about the disease are spreading as quickly as the virus itself. In Montrose alone, I’ve heard everything from false fatality reports to a claim of a growing black market for toilet paper.
There are two ways to mishandle a possible threat—over-react or under-react. Either can worsen the situation. The best thing you can do for yourself and your family is to “accentuate the accurate”—stockpile facts, not rumors, conspiracy theories, or paper products.
People crave information during a crisis. They need accurate information in order to make safe and timely decisions.
But misinformation can make a pandemic much harder to handle, according to Tara Kirk Sell, PhD Senior Scholar, Center for Health Security Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Dr. Sell testified before the U.S. House of Representatives Science, Space, and Technology Committee on March 5, 2020. She told the committee: “Another area of my research, misinformation during disease outbreaks, has emerged as an important challenge during the COVID-19 outbreak. Health misinformation can be defined as false health-related information and can encompass a wide range of messages—from the promotion of fake cures to spreading rumors about the origin of the outbreak. Some false information may also be defined as disinformation if it is intentionally false and created to mislead receivers of these messages.”
Obviously, rumors and conspiracy theories are nothing new, but “the emergence of new communication platforms and access-enabling technology, such as social media and cell phone apps that connect networks of people who often share similar opinions and beliefs, has exacerbated and amplified this problem,” in Sell’s words. “Misinformation and disinformation can substantially impede the effectiveness of public health response measures, reduce trust in public health leaders and responders, and increase stigmatization or scapegoating of affected communities. Rumors and conspiracy theories have also fueled distrust of governments during outbreaks at a time when collaboration and cooperation are critical.
“Although we have not been able to do a systematic analysis of misinformation during the current COVID-19 outbreak, we have seen evidence of a range of different types of false information,” the scientist testified.