The Simplest Way to Spot Coronavirus Misinformation on Social Media

A digital literacy expert shares his method

If you were on Twitter Monday, there’s a solid chance you ran across the tweet below, imploring readers not to use hand sanitizer to guard against the coronavirus. In less than a day, it was retweeted nearly 100,000 times and racked up a quarter of a million likes. It was probably seen by millions, and its central message is one that others picked up on and began spreading themselves. It even metastasized to Facebook.

To many people, the tweet rang head-smackingly true. The person behind it self-identified as a scientist; her exasperation seemed genuine and relatable; her point about bacteria being different from viruses would be familiar to anyone who’s been told by a doctor that antibiotics won’t cure their cold or flu.

As you’ve probably guessed by now, the tweet was not in fact accurate. Yes, you should wash your hands to prevent the spread of coronavirus — but alcohol-based hand sanitizers can be effective as an alternative, provided they contain at least 60% alcohol. (Most leading brands do.) That’s per the CDC, as well as numerous articles in mainstream media.

The tweet, part of a plague of misinformation that has accompanied the spread of COVID-19 around the world, illustrates how social media could worsen the outbreak by encouraging counterproductive actions. If fewer people use hand sanitizer as a backup when hand-washing isn’t feasible, it’s possible that more people will be infected, and more will die. It wouldn’t be the first time: In a 2017 Smithsonian article, a historian made the case that the 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic was made more deadly by the U.S. government’s suppression of accurate information about it.

Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and other platforms have taken steps against coronavirus misinformation, such as directing users to official sources when they search for coronavirus. By Tuesday morning, the original tweet had been deleted (presumably by its author), and screenshots of it that had been posted to Facebook had been flagged as false by the platform’s fact-checking partners. By then, however, the claim had already reached a vast audience, and the platforms lack mechanisms for ensuring that people who saw the false info also see the debunkings. These companies are fighting an uphill battle against the dynamics of their own algorithms, which are built to prioritize speed and engagement.

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