Guest blog post by Matthew Johnson, Director of Education at MediaSmarts, Canada’s centre for digital and media literacy.
In today’s networked world, we don’t just consume information anymore: we’re all broadcasters, too, and everything we share online affects everyone else. Especially during a public health crisis, the ratio of good to bad information can be even more important than individual examples of misinformation. In fact, research has shown that during a pandemic reducing bad information by just ten percentage points has a signiﬁcant impact on the severity of the outbreak.
That’s why MediaSmarts’ new Check First. Share After. campaign (www.checkthenshare.ca) is aimed not just at helping you recognize bad information about COVID-19, but also to help you find good information to share with others.
While the stakes are higher during a pandemic, in some ways it’s easier than usual to find good information because public health authorities are dedicated to spreading the latest health recommendations. As part of the campaign, MediaSmarts created a custom search engine that will search just the websites of the federal, provincial and territorial health authorities.
When we get information shared from other sources, though, there are four simple steps that we can use to find out if it’s reliable, which you can learn more about at MediaSmarts’ Break the Fake page:
- using fact-checking tools – either general-purpose ones like Snopes or specialized ones like the World Health Organization’s Myth Busters site – to see whether it’s already been debunked
- finding the original source of the information to find out whether it came from a source we recognize as being reliable or unreliable (and to find out if a true story has been made inaccurate by changing its context)
- checking whether a source we don’t recognize is real, whether it’s generally considered reliable, and (in the case of specialized information like health or science) whether it’s from a genuine expert or authority
- and checking other sources to find out what the consensus on the story is: are reliable news outlets covering the story? Does the scientific community generally agree on the facts?
Because we are all broadcasters we have a duty to push back when we see people spreading bad information. It’s important to do this carefully–remember that when you reply to misinformation, you’re exposing your friends or followers to it–and always start by assuming they’re acting in good faith. The best response is to share good information from sources that most Canadians consider to be reliable, such as public health agencies, doctors and scientists. (Remember that not all doctors and scientists are the same. Just like you wouldn’t ask a psychiatrist to help you with a toothache, make sure someone is an expert in a relevant field before using them as a source.)
Finally, don’t count on convincing the person you’re replying to. What’s more important is to counter the bad information for the other people who’ve seen it. Even if you do change their mind, they probably won’t say so right away.
The amount of information we’re exposed to online can be overwhelming at the best of times. At the worst–when a deadly disease has spread worldwide, and the science about how to treat and contain it is evolving every day–navigating it can feel impossible. Luckily, the same skills and habits that we use to find out if online information is true in other situations still apply, and are more important than ever. That’s why MediaSmarts is asking Canadians to Check First. Share After.