This can be the bane of family group chats and message chains.
Although not entirely unique to the COVID-19 era, false information – often transmitted from unknown sources – is pervasive today, through ages and formations. But the way you react to these misleading messages could potentially help stem the tide of misinformation, as well as soothe the spirits in tense times.
Let’s say that your well-intentioned father posts a link to a site that you have never seen before. The title shouts “5G TOWERS CAUSE CORONAVIRUS”, with its own comment locked in capital letters, “SCARY STUFF!”
Do you ignore it?
Do you call him saying how ridiculous this is?
“As much as you want to answer your father,” it’s stupid and here is a fact-checking article that shows why you are stupid, “warns Claire Wardle, director of First Draft, a nonprofit organization focused on help people. fight disinformation, “if you do that, you have publicly shamed it.”
Wardle points to research suggesting that chewing someone like this can lead to a bad outcome.
“What happens is that your father doubles his opinion and he rejects what you say.”
A time of fear
Sure, we’re tackling daddy here, but Wardle will tell you that fear and panic around COVID-19 has led all kinds of people to spread misinformation.
“It was one of those lockdowns that I saw a lot of people sharing. It said there would be a lockout in New York in 72 hours. The stores were going to be closed. There will be nothing available. And I forwarded it to two of my friends. “
Wardle discovered the next morning that this was not true. Aside from professional embarrassment, the incident reminded him of how vulnerable people can be, even those trained in media literacy.
“When we are afraid, we are much more sensitive to these forms of misinformation, because we are less likely to launch our critical brain activities. We are much more likely to have an emotional reaction.”
His suggestion, then, to respond to a family member or friend: Be empathetic. Use words that put you in the same perspective, capturing the underlying emotion behind the message. In this case, fear.
“Hey dad, I saw what you posted. It’s interesting because I’ve seen a number of people post it. But I think the reason people are sharing it right now is because ‘They’re scared and they’re looking for answers,’ Wardle suggests, adding, ‘I’d love to talk because I’m really worried too, Dad.’
Context of the criticism
Compassion can help when the facts change, especially during this pandemic where official advice and research has evolved so rapidly. Yet it is good to remind people and keep them informed the dangerousness of misleading information.
“I think it’s really important to report any kind of misinformation or conspiracy about the virus, because a lot of things out there can cause real harm to people,” says Samantha Bradshaw of the Internet Institute. University of Oxford.
“But… it is also important to remember that it is our family and friends and people who are close to us. Maintaining this stability and these relationships is really the key.”
Bradshaw suggests sharing more credible sources of information about the virus, such as messages from public health agencies (including the Public Health Agency of Canada, the World Health Organization, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention).
With your father and his 5G theory, maybe that sends him a link to a article explaining where this particular conspiracy started and how it does not stand up to different levels of control.
In the end, you can spend a lot of careful effort and none of this can prevent those close to you from spreading false information. The misleading content is designed to trigger an emotional response, which is then easy to share on social media.
In response, last week WhatsApp introduced new measures which impose restrictions on forwarded messages.
“It’s very human and technical, at the end of the day, “says Bradshaw about spreading the wrong information.
“And so you need solutions for both. I think all the measures that platforms are taking to limit the virality of information are really essential in fighting the spread of this type of content.”
Bradshaw and Wardle both agree that tackling the problem is better than ignoring it.
“It’s very easy to mute your crazy high school friend on Facebook or leave a WhatsApp group where people are sharing false information,” concedes Wardle.
“But right now, we all have a responsibility to help people understand that sharing this type of information increases the level of pollution.”