Internet trust tool tracking the spread of misinformation about coronavirus

Posted at 2:05 PM, Apr 07, 2020

In today's society, the spread of misinformation can be dangerous.

“Democracy and many of the other things we do in society require an informed citizen. We all have to have the same set of facts,” said University of Colorado Assistant Professor Toby Hopp.

Hopp studies how trust and transparency affect how we talk to each other on digital media spaces. In the middle of the coronavirus pandemic, he says the spread of misinformation has become more common.

“Any time you see a large news story that is a big part of social and national discussions that we might be having, we see actors that will spread information that is not true, low quality, misleading, biased, and often times hyper-partisan as well," Hopp said.

While gossip has been a way of life for a long time, it seems like social media has taken it to a whole new level.

“While the spread of false information isn’t new, it’s been around forever, I do think that you’re seeing an information environment where it’s easier to spread false information to a lot of people.”

Before the internet, gossip had to be spread from person to person, but now people can reach thousands, potentially millions of people within a day. One company called NewsGuard is working to battle that threat.

“When people are reading the news online, they’re scrolling through Facebook, Twitter, Google results… it’s hard to know when a website they see is legitimate and when it’s not,” NewsGuard Washington Correspondent Gabby Deutch said.

Deutch says the company has a team of journalists who review the credibility of sources to help people know whether or not they can trust the information is true. During the pandemic, the company is offering its browser extension for free – you’ll see a green check mark if the source is reliable, and a red exclamation mark if it’s not.

“A lot of these websites that share misinformation about coronavirus have been around for a long time sharing misinformation about every health crisis going back 10 or 15 years – so Ebola, Zika, the controversy last year about vaccines – and a lot of these will in fact profit from this misinformation,” Deutch said.

The websites spreading false information can profit by selling products they claim could be a remedy for the virus. Money is their motivation. However, sometimes what they’re suggesting is also dangerous.

“Ideas that drinking liquid silver can cure you of coronavirus or taking certain supplements that have not been proven to have any beneficial effects.”

It’s not just false remedies. According to Deutch, some sites are spreading misinformation that the virus was created in a military laboratory as some kind of Chinese biological weapon and then unleashed into the world.

“The theories that we see about the origins of the virus are also particularly dangerous because they generally instill in people a distrust in the authorities. And right now, during a global pandemic, it’s more important than ever that we’re trusting the CDC, the WHO, and these public health institutions that are trying harder than ever to keep us safe,” Deutch said.

Deutch says NewsGuard has already discovered around 150 sites spreading coronavirus misinformation, and that number is growing by the day. You can find those sites on NewsGuards’ Coronavirus Misinformation Tracking Center, but if you want to make sure the news you’re seeing is accurate, both Deutch and Assistant Professor Hopp have some suggestions.

“Broadly speaking, I think there is a danger in getting your information on social media. Research has shown people who rely on social media to get all their news and information are less informed than folks who actually make a purposeful effort to engage with the news. So, go to a newspaper website, watch the evening news, so on and so forth,” Hopp said.

“People who are working at news organizations have an understanding of getting the facts and talking to the people in charge of these institutions. And there’s a certain protocol for making sure what they’re reporting is accurate," Deutch said.

You can also go straight to the Center for Disease Control website to get that latest and most detailed information about coronavirus.