When this blog posts, it will have been about two-and-a-half years since COVID-19 hit Calhoun County. Even though so much time has passed, it’s still common to run into misinformation while trying to navigate through countless articles, social media posts, and daily conversations.

But what exactly is misinformation? How does it relate to COVID-19 and the medical community? And how can you know when something is true or just simply made up? We reached out to a few experts for the answers. Keep reading for their tips.

Disinformation vs. Misinformation

The key difference between disinformation and misinformation is misinformation doesn’t have to be motivated by malicious intent. While disinformation is typically propaganda or spread around to deliberately deceive people, misinformation is simply incorrect or misleading. Most of the time, it’s something the speaker has heard from another source and believes to be true, although data might not back up that statement. If something is unreliable or unverified and is being shared amongst communities, it’s misinformation.

When it comes to COVID-19, misinformation has developed around a whole host of topics—the origin of the virus, how it’s spread, ways to prevent infection, vaccine information, treatment methods, and many others. A lot of the time, you’ll hear this misinformation referred to as “COVID-19 myths,” because they’re widespread misunderstandings about how the virus, vaccines, and boosters function.

At our recent Sherwood B. Winslow lecture, researcher Timothy Caulfield told attendees, “Misinformation is the single ‘most important factor’ influencing individuals’ decisions.” Falsities are becoming a prominent part of how we receive news and information.

So, how do you know if something is misinformation? It’s a mix of checking sources, authors, facts, comments, and even your own biases.

Listen to the Experts

If all else fails, listen to the people who know best. Medical professionals have been consistently researching COVID-19 to learn how to keep patients safe. Dr. Matt Ralph, Director of Clinical Affairs at Oaklawn Hospital, emphasized the importance of “evidence-based medicine” to truly understand the scope of what research is being done. When medicine is evidence-based, it takes into account past, present, and future problems to find the best solution.

“When it comes to the successes of our medical knowledge today, we can thank the thousands of men and women who found ways to better treat various health conditions and created research trials to prove those outcomes were successful,” said Dr. Ralph. “These research-proven treatments have become what we consider to be ‘the standard of care.’”

Dr. Ralph continued to say, “There is absolutely nothing political about the outcome of these studies and the standards of care they dictate. That’s because no one can vote or decide the outcome of a credible study, since being ‘credible’ means it adheres to established scientific methods.”

When COVID-19 first hit, it was seen as an imminent threat. That means medical professionals didn’t have a lot of time to cultivate recommendations for COVID-19. Instead, they utilized evidence-based medicine to decide on prevention tactics (such as wearing masks) and how to best treat those who were infected. Although COVID-19 responses were quick, they were based on credible, research-backed evidence. To put it simply, experts know their fields inside and out. That means you can trust the advice given by a group of credible medical experts like the World Health Organization.

Know Your Sources

Even the most knowledgeable experts can be misquoted by sources who may be trying to push a certain agenda. Even with that information, finding reliable sources isn’t always easy. So how can you tell which sources to trust?

As a general tip, always check to see who the authors are, who the organization is, and what their credentials are. If something you read seems alarming or untrue, do some secondary research and see what others are saying. This doesn’t mean that you should do a deep dive into the comment section of the suspicious article. Instead, try researching your question to see if any known reputable sources have advice. Dr. Ralph recommends the CDC, World Health Organization, and the Michigan COVID-19 dashboard as starting points.

However, Dr. Ralph advises against simply entering a search on your go-to search engine. “Regarding information on COVID and various treatments, I would always recommend caution when utilizing a Google search. It’s important to understand that the ability to rapidly share information on the internet also comes with the potential that some of the information you find may not be reliable,” says Dr. Ralph.

Timothy Caulfield backed this up in his recent lecture. He said, “Even the autocomplete function on Google is an engine of misinformation. A recent study by researchers at Simon Fraser University found that the computer’s going to guess what you’re looking for, and it will autofill your search query with misinformation.” 

Addressing Misinformation

It’s wonderful to understand how to find credible sources, but most people are still likely to encounter misinformation in their daily lives. If you run into new information, here are a few steps you can take to verify whether it’s legitimate or misinformation:

  1. Try to verify the information you found is correct by checking out other credible news sources or trusted experts.
  2. If it’s misinformation you found on social media, don’t comment, share, or engage with the post or comment. Even if you’re trying to correct the information, interacting with it can help it reach new audiences.
  3. Report the misinformation to the social media platform or publication you find it on.

There’s no shortage of misinformation out there—especially surrounding COVID-19. When in doubt, trust the experts and only listen to validated sources. By reporting and not engaging with the information, you’re doing your part to stop the spread!