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May 12, 2020updated 30 Sep 2022 9:16am

Everyone can play part to stop spread of coronavirus misinformation – Reuters head of UGC

By Hazel Baker

Hazel Baker is head of user generated content newsgathering at Reuters.

“We’re not just fighting an epidemic – we’re fighting an infodemic.”

Those were the words of World Health Organisation director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus who warned back in February that the excessive flow of information surrounding Covid-19 was allowing rumours and false claims to spread far and fast.

Around the same time as Tedros gave this warning, our newly-formed Reuters Fact Check team had just come into operation. We had prepared to spend the year immersed in tackling misinformation relating to the 2020 US presidential race.

However, we had to rapidly pivot and turn all our attention to dealing with false and misleading information relating to the novel coronavirus.

The team has now published over 100 fact checks relating to the virus, covering everything from dangerous home remedies and falsified authority documents through to 5G conspiracies and highly misleading reports about efforts to develop a vaccine.

Through this work, we have observed patterns in the way misinformation is spreading and the nature of the claims being made.

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We know that many people who share misleading posts on social media aren’t doing so intentionally. The false claims may be hidden among facts and are passed on in the belief that the information may help others.

With that in mind, Thomson Reuters has worked in collaboration with the National Association for Media Literacy and Education to produce a tip sheet, video and podcast designed to help people understand and identify some of the most common ways in which false information around the virus can travel.

The aspects we examine – and advice on spotting them – are:

  1. ‘Copy and paste’ rumours: These simple text messages, that often that seem to contain insider information, spread very quickly through chat apps. We suggest putting the first line into search engines, to see if anyone else has received that message.
  2. Imposter content: We’ve come across various pictures of documents being shared on social media that are designed to look like they have been officially released, when in reality they are fabricated. We advise cross-referencing with official websites to be sure.
  3. Lists of remedies and cures: Various viral posts on social media contain lists of top tips to avoid or cure the virus. However, we know there is no food or supplement that can stop you getting the virus, and no fully effective treatment yet. It’s best to seek advice from local health authorities.
  4. Out-of-context video: A common type of misinformation we encounter is outdated or lost-context video. Reverse image search can help to locate earlier examples.

Called  “Slowing the Infodemic:  How to Spot Covid-19 Misinformation”, we hope these materials will encourage everyone who uses social media to scrutinise the source of virus-related information that they encounter and think twice before sharing.

We also encourage our audience to seek regular updates from trusted news providers, to ensure they stay completely up to date.

Just as we can all play a role in slowing the spread of the novel coronavirus, so we have an opportunity to slow the spread of the misinformation surrounding this global pandemic.

Picture: Reuters/Issei Kato

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