Detect coronavirus misinformation in 30 seconds

A hooded figure at a computer in front of a map with binary digits dropping down in front
Image courtesy of U.S. Department of Defense

VANCOUVER, Wash. – Coronavirus misinformation is spreading rapidly. Washington State University digital literacy expert Mike Caulfield has a way to help stop it.

Working with university and high school teachers across the country, Caulfield has created a method called SIFT, a simple set of skills that takes about an hour to learn but as little as 30 seconds to implement when encountering information on social media. The steps to SIFT are: Stop, Investigate the source, Find trusted coverage, and Trace claims, quotations and media to their original context. The process is further detailed on the website: SIFTing Through the Coronavirus Outbreak.

“Coronavirus misinformation is not a problem you’re going to solve through teaching people to be mini-virologists or epidemiologists,” said Caulfield, director of blended and networked learning at WSU Vancouver. “People need an education that is really focused on the things that have the biggest impact. And in this case, that’s education around these quick verification skills.”

Mike Caulfield

Caulfield has found a lot of misinformation on the coronavirus circulating on social media, such as the false story that the Chinese were sending out doctors to shoot sick patients or the debunked conspiracy theory that the virus was a bioweapon created in the U.S. and stolen by China. What worries him most, however, is what may happen when the virus hits the United States. The CDC recently warned this is likely to happen and asked communities to start to prepare and plan to implement “social distancing” methods to help stop the spread, such as shutting down certain events.

“There will be conspiracy theories about the sorts of measures that governments and communities take to stop the spread of coronavirus, and that can cause a lot of damage,” Caulfield said. “When it hits here, there may be messages on the one side pushing people to overreact and panic, and on the other side, others will be saying ‘no, this is all a ruse by the CDC.’ And that’s not even getting into the false cures that will circulate.”

Experts, policy makers and industry leaders have pushed two ways to fight the spread of misinformation about coronavirus: the first is to remove fake and misleading information from platforms, and tech giants such as Facebook, Twitter and Google recently started to implement measures to root out posts containing false claims.

Caulfield said this is a good but imperfect solution since bad actors often find ways around whatever measures are put in place.

The second way to fight misinformation is to educate the public on how to easily spot it, so they don’t spread it, which is what the SIFT method is designed to do.

“It is not always clear at a glance, what is credible and what is not,” Caufield said. “I think people are in a heightened emotional state about the coronavirus so when they see something, their first reaction is to share it with everybody.”

The good news, Caulfield pointed out, is that people are making relatively simple mistakes when sharing misinformation, so there are also simple counter-measures they can take by using SIFT.

Examples of SIFT skills include hovering over a Twitter image so it pulls up the profile of the source poster. This can help quickly uncover if the poster is reputable. Another is to check the date of the source material as some misinformation is spread using an old article to make it seem like it is current.

Framing is also a new problem. Posters will summarize articles incorrectly to make them seem more alarming or to fit with unsupported theories. Clicking on the article and using a find search (Ctrl+F) will identify if the key term is really in the article. Caulfield uses an example of a social media post that claims a professor charged with lying about Chinese connections was Harvard’s lead coronavirus biologist. A quick “click through and find” exercise of the attached article reveals no connection to coronavirus.

For the last four years, Caulfield has worked with a variety of both high school and college teachers to promote new digital literacy methods, both at WSU and internationally. SIFT was first developed in 2016 as part of an ongoing project with the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, but the more recent coronavirus work has its roots in a partnership with the National Writing Project. With the coronavirus outbreak, and recent rapid and potentially dangerous spread of misinformation about it, Caulfield decided to publish materials from that project on the web to provide them to as many people as possible.

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