July 9, 2021

Five tips to avoid COVID-19 misinformation online

Jonathan N. Stea, UCalgary professor and member of new social media movement, outlines how to exercise critical thinking during pandemic
Jonathan N. Stea
Jonathan N. Stea

The COVID-19 pandemic and the massive vaccine rollout has amplified the online spread of medical misinformation, prompting the creation of #ScienceUpFirst, a social media movement developed by a team of independent scientists, health-care providers and science communicators.

Dr. Jonathan N. Stea, MSc’10, PhD’14, a clinical psychologist and adjunct assistant professor at the University of Calgary, has taken his passion for educating the public on misinformation in popular media and applied it to his role as a coalition member of #ScienceUpFirst.

Stea, who specializes in the assessment and treatment of concurrent addictive and psychiatric disorders, provides five tips for people to consider while scrolling through social media. He notes that these tips are derived from the “exceptional work of friend and #ScienceUpFirst colleague, Prof. Timothy Caulfield, Canada Research Chair in Health Law and Policy at the University of Alberta.”

Pause and think about accuracy before you share content

Statistics Canada recently did a survey that revealed nearly all Canadians have encountered COVID-19 misinformation online, but only about one in five checked the accuracy of that misinformation, and about half of Canadians admitted sharing COVID misinformation without knowing if it was accurate.

Stea says it is important to pause and think about accuracy before you share content because research shows that people spread misinformation because they fail to stop and reflect.

“A lot of misinformation spread can be accounted for by mere lazy thinking,” says Stea. “This means an overreliance on intuitive and gut responses versus our more critical and analytical thinking.”

Be an informed reader and go beyond the headlines

Stea acknowledges this is a lifelong endeavour, but the ultimate goal should be for people to improve their scientific literacy — better understanding of how science is done — and media literacy — understanding how that science is communicated.

He says improving science literacy can help people spot misinformation. For instance, understanding the difference between correlation and causation and the nature of how clinical trials are conducted, like randomized, controlled trials. Stea says it’s also important to be aware and understand that the media in general has a negativity bias, meaning it often exaggerates and amplifies negative headlines that may be misinterpreted from their primary sources.

“We know from research that people who are better able to understand science are better able to navigate the constantly changing information landscape,” Stea says.

If someone is trying to sell you something, then run

Stea says there is no shortage of people trying to sell pseudo-science and misinformation online, especially during COVID-19.

He says to be on the lookout for people using “hype-y” or “science-y”-type language, using terms like “breakthrough,” “revolutionary treatment,” “a cure” or “a gamechanger.”

“If you’re seeing that stuff in the media, that should put your ‘Spidey-sense’ up,” says Stea.

If you see or hear testimonials related to COVID-19 or vaccines, then that is a red alert and a cue to be suspicious

Stea says that anecdotal evidence is low-quality evidence — watch out for anecdotal health evidence when you’re making health-related decisions.

Stea says people should be cautious when looking at COVID-19 and vaccine information from places like YouTube or Facebook, as those are filled with testimonials and anecdotes.

“We need high-quality evidence to support health decisions, not anecdotes,” he says.

Use trusted sources

#ScienceUpFirst has a list of credible sources on its website, including Health Canada, the U.S.-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the World Health Organization.

Stea says #ScienceUpFirst regularly posts trusted and science-informed COVID-19 content that is transparent and accurate across its social media platforms.

“You don’t want get your information from a random neighbour or your friend on Facebook,” he says. “You want to go to trusted sources.”

To learn more, visit the #ScienceUpFirst website or follow Stea on Twitter at @jonathanstea.

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