Editorial: The disinformation highway

A dizzying amount of information has been published about COVID-19. Open a newspaper, turn on the TV, flip on the radio or scroll through social media and the topic is inescapable. Everyone  from scientists to politicians, journalists to economists  is trying to make sense of this disease and where we go from here. No one and nothing is untouched. Already, we’ve lost more than 80,000 American lives and, at least for now, we’ve lost a way of life as well. Measures to curtail the disease have upended personal and professional worlds. 

Processing all the information is challenging, especially as the scientific community’s knowledge of our collective foe evolves. Disturbingly, a disease that can strike anyone has become yet another partisan minefield and fodder for conspiracy theories and hoaxesEven information from reputable sources is subject to change and quickly. There’s a reason why it’s called the novel coronavirus. This is new ground. Shifting guidelines, mixed messaging from our nation’s highest office, finger pointing and the variable impact of the disease, devastating some communities and thus far sparing others, has been bewildering. Tensions are high. Worries over public health are pitted against fear of long-term economic disaster. 

Against this backdrop, engines of misinformation are hard at work. In recent days, major social networks have been scurrying to take down a coronavirus conspiracy theory video gone viral. Like a game of virtual whack-a-mole, as soon as it’s removed, the video resurfaces somewhere else. Slickly edited documentary-style, the film made the rounds locally. The piece, featuring interviews with a discredited doctor, is chock full of claims unsupported by science or common sense. Among the contentions is that the virus was manipulated in a labUnlikely, says Anthony Fauci, director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease. “If you look at the evolution of the virus in bats and whats out there now, [the scientific evidence] is very, very strongly leaning toward this could not have been artificially or deliberately manipulated … Everything about the stepwise evolution over time strongly indicates that [this virus] evolved in nature and then jumped species,” he told National Geographic. 

A recent survey from PBS NewsHour, NPR and Marist Poll found that 59 percent of Americans say it is hard to identify false or misleading information on social media. The individuals and groups that produce the material are getting more sophisticated in their tactics. Meanwhile, Americans are increasingly mistrustful of government, the press and public institutions. Many people are curious about information from non-mainstream sources or simply drawn to posts and videos that mirror their world view. 

We’re all responsible for slowing the spread of misinformation. When stumbling upon something online, readers and viewers must consider the source and its credibility before clicking “share. Is there a motive behind the message? Is it opinion? What’s the supporting evidence?  

Now more than ever, the public needs good information. 

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