Fact or fiction? How to avoid fake news about coronavirus

Last reviewed on 5 October 2020

“We’re not just fighting an epidemic; we’re fighting an infodemic”
(World Health Organization, March 2020)


Stay alert, control the virus, save lives is the official advice for everyone in the UK. Although social media is incredibly useful as a way of staying in touch at the moment, you’re probably being inundated with posts about coronavirus. There was a COVID-19 related tweet every 45 milliseconds in early March, for example. In addition, your friends might be sharing information on WhatsApp and other messaging apps, which hasn’t been verified.

Recent research by Ofcom revealed that around a quarter (27%) of UK adults have come across false or misleading information about COVID-19 in the last week – down from 50% in April. From conspiracy theories to miracle cures, fake news is hampering the fight against the disease and could also be having a negative impact on your mental wellbeing. You might feel overwhelmed by the sheer amount of information, anxious about what you’re seeing and stressed as you don’t know what to believe.

When you experience this kind of cognitive overload, you might make decisions you wouldn’t normally make. Feelings can run high in difficult times and social media can become the place to vent. You might even feel pressured into doing something that feels risky or that is against government advice.

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One useful piece of advice is to be cautious when sharing information about the virus with others. As Tom Phillips of Full Fact wrote in The Guardian, “It’s a natural response to a scary situation to pass on advice that you think might help protect your friends and family. But if that information turns out to be inaccurate, you risk doing more harm than good.”

So what else can you do to avoid the dangerous myths and misinformation and find news and advice that you can trust? You might find it useful to follow these three steps:

Step 1

Question the information

  • Who has it been created by – a journalist? a scientist? a doctor? a blogger? a friend?
  • Is the creator from a reputable organisation?
  • Do I trust the judgement of the person who shared it?
  • Is there any scientific evidence to back up the claims?

Always remember that even people you trust might share something that is factually incorrect without realising it – try to check BBC Reality Check or Full Fact to confirm the validity of the information.

Step 2

Limit your intake

  • Get your news from trusted sources, such as the Government, NHS and Public Health England
  • Only check the news and your social media once or twice a day
  • Switch off social media notifications
  • Remove yourself from certain messaging chat groups
  • Look for verified content, such as Google Knowledge Panels and verified YouTube videos

Step 3

Think before you post

  • Take a moment before you share any information about coronavirus with others
  • Ask yourself the questions outlined in step 1
  • Consider the impact the content could have on the people you share it with – if you think it might upset or worry them, hold off on sending it

Public health organisations are also taking action to combat fake news:

At this challenging time, technology will help us all to stay connected and that is vital for good mental health. It’s not a case of switching off the news or your social media – it’s more about finding the right balance, knowing how to recognise trustworthy information and not adding to the glut of fake news.

As Sir Simon Stevens, NHS Chief Executive, says, “Ensuring the public has easy access to accurate NHS advice however they search for it, not only will support people to take the right action but will also help the country’s response to coronavirus.”


Useful websites

NHS

UK Government

BBC Reality Check

Full Fact

Google Fact Check Explorer

The Guardian

BBC News

Read Good Thinking’s advice on how to deal with stress and how to deal with uncertainty. You might also find our podcasts with Professor Kevin Fenton (public health response to COVID-19) and Tanya Goodin (healthy screen/life balance) useful.