Misinformation, Social Media, and You

  • Posted on: 8 April 2020
  • By: Michelle Brightwell

This is the first post in a series about media literacy. What is media literacy? It’s the ability to access, analyze, evaluate, create and act using information in all forms. (source https://namle.net/publications/media-literacy-definitions/)

We’re all doing our part to social distance and to flatten the curve by staying home when we can, and for many of us, that means spending more time on social media to keep ourselves connected to our friends and loved ones. With the increased usage of social media across all platforms during this time, information, both good and bad, can spread incredibly fast, hitting thousands, even millions, of social media feeds within hours.

In February, when rates of recorded coronavirus cases were starting to ramp up in the United States, a Facebook post was shared far and wide across social media, text posts circulating on Instagram and twitter, describing a self-check that involved holding your breath for 10 seconds. Do you remember seeing it? The text read:

“The new Coronavirus may not show signs of infection for many days. How can you know if you are infected? By the time you have fever and/or cough and go to the hospital, the lung is usually 50% fibrosis. Taiwan experts provide a simple self-check that we can do every morning: Take a deep breath and hold it for more than 10 seconds. If you do this successfully without coughing, without discomfort, stiffness or tightness, there is no fibrosis in the lungs; it basically indicates no infection. In critical times, please self-check every morning in an environment with clean air.”

It was attributed to “doctors in Taiwan”, “Stanford University”, sometimes “Stanford Hospital Board”, it sometimes included the text “serious and excellent advice by Japanese doctors”. This information is false and wouldn’t help anyone worried about contracting covid-19. Pulmonary fibrosis is not a symptom of covid-19, and holding your breath isn’t a reliable check for pulmonary fibrosis anyway. (source: https://stanfordhealthcare.org/stanford-health-care-now/2020/novel-coron...)

If you didn’t see that one, maybe you saw this one:

“SERIOUS EXCELLENT ADVICE by Japanese doctors treating COVID-19 cases. Everyone should ensure your mouth & throat is moist, never DRY. Take a few sips of water every 15 mins at least. WHY? Even if the virus gets into your mouth … drinking water or other liquids will WASH them down through your oesophagus and into the stomach. Once there in tummy … your stomach ACID will kill all the virus. If you don’t drink enough water more regularly … the virus can enter your windpipes and into the LUNGS. That’s very dangerous.”

I saw this one shared a bunch, and then I saw people in comment sections in Facebook moms groups, local neighborhood Facebook groups, comment sections on news article, comments on people’s personal Facebook posts distilling the information down in their own words in the comments. It’s a nice thought and we all know that we have potent acids in our stomachs and that sounds plausible, but unfortunately that’s not how germs work. (source: https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20200319-covid-19-will-drinking-water...)

Why did these posts spread so far so quickly? You will notice a lot of viral posts regarding health matters start with an appeal to authority. An appeal to authority is a logical fallacy where one insists that that a claim is true because a valid authority or expert said it was true. (source: https://yourlogicalfallacyis.com/appeal-to-authority) It’s impossible for us all to be experts in every subject, so we naturally defer to people who are experts. A post that begins with “doctors in Taiwan” or an institution like Stanford University automatically catches our trust. People that want things to go viral know that people have the tendency to automatically believe information when that information is attributed to someone with authority.

To double check social media posts, you can do a search on your favorite search engine on the topic. For the breathing check, you could pick a couple of key terms from the post, for example, a search of “holding breath for 10 seconds coronavirus” will bring up articles from trusted news outlets like USAtoday, Reuters, BBC, CNN, and Fox News with information from medical experts debunking the information. You can do the same search in your favorite search engine with keywords “sipping water curing coronavirus”, and find results from BBC, New York Times, Forbes, Wall Street Journal and more debunking the information that says you can sip water every few minutes and it will wash the virus down to your stomach and then your stomach acid will kill the virus and you won’t get sick.

There are so many reasons that these posts go viral, not just the appeal to the authority. We’re all suffering from information overload. We’re all experiencing a shared trauma, and we are more likely to latch on to anything that sounds good. Survival instincts give us a tendency to believe what our friends say and share because prehistorically, groups of people are more successful than single people in the wilderness. It’s especially important to double check health information presented to us from unknown sources right now, when misinformation can make the difference between staying healthy and becoming exposed to COVID-19. If you’re unsure how to find the information yourself, you can ask our reference chat, Ask a Librarian, at https://hmcpl.org/contact !

Additional Sources:



If you like to listen to podcasts, https://www.wired.com/story/gadget-lab-podcast-448/

If you like videos, this series on the Crash Course Youtube channel in partnership with PBS is an excellent introduction to media literacy https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AD7N-1Mj-DU&list=PL8dPuuaLjXtM6jSpzb5gMN...