What misinformation looks like and tools to combat it

“A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes,” said Mark Twain. Or did he? Supposedly he said it in 1919, but Twain died in 1910. Attributing the quote to Twain is an example of misinformation.

Misinformation is when people spread information they think is true but is actually false, inaccurate or misleading.

Disinformation, on the other hand, is when somebody “deliberately attempts to deceive us,” said Annie Zeidman-Karpinski, the Ken and Kenda Singer Science Librarian at the University of Oregon. Disinformation is often used for propaganda or profit.

Today, misinformation and disinformation zip around the world at about two-thirds the speed of light – faster than the truth can find its socks.

Both run rampant online and can have disastrous consequences, especially in matters of life and death.

When it comes to COVID-19, misinformation and disinformation cause too many people to question the facts on vaccines, which may lead them to skip vaccination, which in turn could leave them vulnerable to serious illness, hospitalization and death, not to mention spreading the disease to friends and family. It could also compel people to take their chances and rely on unproven and risky treatments in the even they contract the virus.

For example, misinformation and disinformation about using veterinary-grade ivermectin to treat COVID-19 has landed people in the hospital and prompted the FDA to launch the social campaign: “You are not a horse. You are not a cow. Seriously, y’all. Stop it,” back in August. What’s especially troubling about this trend is that, in some cases, sick patients had been perfectly willing to take ivermectin to prevent COVID-19, while not trusting a vaccine clinically proven to do just that.

Truth vs. Fiction: How to tell the difference

When information is delivered out of context intentionally or not, its meaning can change altogether, and sometimes false information is simply made up. Here are some examples of potential fiction:

How to validate what you hear, read and watch about COVID-19

When in doubt, SIFT through the information:

  • Stop.  
  • Investigate the source.  
  • Find better coverage.   
  • Trace the claims, quotes and media back to their original sources and contexts.  

“I want to emphasize SIFT is just an acronym you can do in any order. It is not a checklist, it is just things you can do,” Zeidman-Karpinski explained. “Think about where everything is coming from and decide what you are going to do.”

See how Quote Investigate “sifted” through the evidence to trace the Mark Twain quote back nearly 200 years.

This is part of a series of articles about misinformation. You can read more on the blog:
Tools and techniques to determine the credibility of a claim
Tips for Talking with family and friends about misinformation