With a sea of information available about COVID-19, and much of it conflicting advice, it can be challenging to find the most useful and accurate information.
Dr Marco Rizzi from The University of Western Australia’s Law School, an expert in health law and policy, said it was a particularly delicate time for people in Australia and essential that people were consuming the right information to make informed decisions.
“At the moment it’s particularly difficult to understand whether information is from a trustworthy source. There is so much out there and a lot of very different messages, it’s no wonder we are confused,” Dr Rizzi said,
“Not all information we are reading reveals the source, and getting the wrong information is not only detrimental to our decision-making, but inaccurate information can lead to unnecessary worry.”
Dr Rizzi said a general rule of thumb was to look at the qualifications of the experts and the source.
“There is no shortage of information but it’s important to work out if the information is from a qualified, trustworthy source,” Dr Rizzi said.
“Also look at the channel where the information comes from. For example, social media is a great source of fast information but the reliability varies. Anyone can contribute information through social media so it’s important to consider the accuracy of information and the goal of the person who is uploading the information.
“Are they wanting to sell a product, make news headlines, or grab people’s attention? Is the information balanced, or is there another side that they haven’t considered? These may seem like common sense questions but when there is a lot of conflicting information they can be easy to miss.
“Be mindful of bombastic headlines. For example, recent claims that COVID-19 is airborne have found a wide echo in the headlines of newspapers internationally, yet there is no consensus among experts that this is actually the case.
“The same goes for claims around the effectiveness of potential cures. Insufficiently backed declarations by public officials can lead to further threats to public health as we have seen with the rush to purchase the common anti-malarial drug in the US. This can lead to shortages for people who need the medicine.
“It’s also important to consider your role in sharing information and how sharing inaccurate information might affect other people.”
Doug Macfarlane, a PhD student from UWA’s School of Psychology, is investigating the psychology of health misinformation. He suggests several factors may help explain why we continue to spread false COVID-19 medical information to our networks, particularly on social media and messaging applications.
He said when we are emotional or stressed about our health and jobs then we are less able to be critical of the information presented to us and begin operating under visceral influence.
“It’s really important though at this time to check the qualifications and verify each claim using an independent fact-checking website. Don't just trust anyone claiming to be an expert," Mr MacFarlane said.
“When we experience an emotion, whether it be fear, anxiety, or a desire for a cure, our emotions are guiding our attention and impairing our cognitive abilities.
“This means we are more focused on obtaining our goal but at the expense of missing out on peripheral details that should alert us to the fact that we are being misled.”
Visceral influence also increases impulsivity, which can lead us to quickly share any information with the promise of a cure, without giving it full consideration, in an effort to protect our friends and family.
“We are much more likely to share material that evokes an emotional response, whether that may be fear, laughter or disgust. So more sensational memes, tweets, and narratives are spreading faster and more broadly online and among people’s networks than the sober straight up facts,” he said.
“Perhaps the biggest danger of spreading miracle health remedies is that they reduce other people’s perception of the real risks of catching COVID-19. When we believe there’s some easy way to protect ourselves and our families, we can become complacent about the stuff we desperately need to do, which are social distance, diligently use soap and alcohol wash, and avoid all unnecessary exposure to other people,” he said.
Dr Rizzi said some trusted sources included the World Health Organization at an international level and the Australian Medical Association nationally.
“These are reliable and independent sources of information from experts in the field such as doctors, epidemiologists, scientists and researchers,” Dr Rizzi said. “We are going to have to learn to coexist with this virus, potentially for a significant period of time.
“A vaccine is still a long way down the road, and even then, implementing social programs to roll it out won’t be easy and will require time.
“So for now, being careful about what information we digest and what we use to make decisions is important.”