When Information About a Virus Goes… um, Viral

There has been a lot of media attention about Ebola of late, and it illustrates very well the problems associated with getting reliable information from the Internet.

First, let me state that I know that Ebola is a terrible, painful disease with no cure. I know how it is spread, what the symptoms are, the likelihood of survival, the incubation period, and many other facts about it. Almost everyone in the US has this information as well. The trouble sneaks in where different groups (or individuals) try to sensationalize the story to get ratings and clicks, and to subvert the information (or create misinformation) to push their own agendas.

Some examples:

  • A number of “leaders” in the US government tell us that Ebola is going to sneak into the US through a porous Mexican border. They neglect to tell us, however, that there has never been a reported case of Ebola in Mexico. This story has gone viral.
  • Numerous shares on social media that “the oral thermometers being used at the International arrivals terminals across the US are inaccurate and easily fooled by drinking a cold beverage.” Another story that is completely false (they’re using highly accurate infrared “no-touch” thermometers) and highly viral.
  • The “twitterverse” generates hundreds of tweets a minute about Ebola, many of them sensationalist.

With all the information out there, how do you know what is good information and what is not? Here are some suggestions:

  • The sniff test – If something smells fishy about the story or just doesn’t seem right or rational, trust your instinct. It probably isn’t right.
  • The level test – determine if the information seems slanted or biased in order to make a point or push a seemingly unrelated issue. If it’s biased, then reliability is questionable.
  • The source test – look at the source of the article. If the source is not usually an expert on the topic being discussed (e.g, the Centers for Disease Control vs. a political party discussing a life threatening disease) it is likely unreliable.

The examples above don’t just apply to Ebola, they apply to almost everything you’re looking for online. Product reviews have been known to be written by the very people who are selling the product; information (or misinformation) is posted to influence behavior, and stories (and headlines) are created to increase traffic to websites.

The takeaway

Be very careful about the information you rely on from outside sources. Your sources should be subject matter experts, people with many years of experience in the field in which they are speaking about. They should have no hidden (or unhidden) agendas. They should be unbiased, able to deliver the information in a manner which is best for you, not necessarily best for them.

Having a hypercritical eye when gathering important information on the Internet is the only real safe way to protect yourself from viral misinformation.

Tell us about your latest run-in with viral misinformation. We’d like to hear about it too