In the beginning, it seemed unclear which spread faster: the rumors about COVID-19 or the virus itself. According to social media, martial law was imminent, food supplies were running out and citizens would soon need permission to leave their homes. People were scared, and for many, sharing these articles was almost comforting; after all, if you know what’s coming, you can prepare for it. You can take back control with the click of a mouse.

The problem is that social media is notoriously unreliable and prone to manipulation. Simply, the content that generates the strongest response spreads the farthest, regardless of whether it’s true or false. Add in unclear guidance from officials and a populace with more free time than it knows what to do with, and the stage is set for a surge in online disinformation.

The truth is out there, but it’s often hidden

Many of us have now been in lockdown for several weeks, so it’s only natural that we’d be looking for a way back to normality. However, according to health experts, we’ll be living with the impact of this pandemic for the foreseeable future. This is why now, more than ever, it’s vital we think critically about the information given to us. How, though, can you tell what’s true when it seems like every source has an agenda?

Unfortunately, there’s no foolproof step-by-step guide to filtering out fake news. However, there are a few things you can look out for that might indicate a less than truthful source:

  • A politician deflects a question and answers one that wasn’t asked.
  • The government’s words are at odds with its actions (for instance, when the UK Prime Minister was taken to the intensive care unit for “routine testing” before later admitting he had become infected with COVID-19).
  • Breaking news from a previously unknown blog, particularly if it panders to conspiracy theorists or those with fringe ideologies.
  • A post on your social media feed claims to “know someone who knows someone” with exclusive information about the government’s coronavirus plans.
  • Someone claims to have found a cure for (or the cause of) the coronavirus. Rest assured: if either actually happens, it’ll be headline news.

The virus isn’t the only threat

Of course, people spending more time online comes with its own set of problems. Even putting aside the mental health implications of increased social media usage, there are plenty of risks, not least of which are the many increasingly prevalent coronavirus-related scams.

Most of these have been around for years, but recently, they’ve been given a contemporary twist. For instance, a refund scammer might now claim that your refund is for a canceled flight or hotel booking instead of a tech subscription of some kind. Instead of being asked to invest in a large stockpile of gold, you may be offered the opportunity to purchase large quantities of personal protective equipment at rock-bottom prices. Even malware creators are adapting, with reports of Trojan horses disguised as coronavirus-tracking apps.

Sometimes the simplest tricks are the most effective; however, many people are still waiting to hear from their local authority about income support, welfare or tax reliefs. With savings quickly running out, they’re becoming desperate, and as a result are far more likely to click on a phishing email purporting to be from the IRS than they usually would.

So what can we do about it?

Obviously, the best way to help is to stay at home. Additionally, given how much time we’re all spending online, it might be a good idea to revisit the basics of online security with your family, especially if you have children or elderly relatives, who are prime targets for scammers. Remember: People fall for online scams every single day, and while it’s always a tragedy, the stakes are so much higher given how tight money is at the moment.

Individuals can only do so much, though. Ultimately, without a clear view of the bigger picture, nobody can make fully informed decisions about their futures. Simply, disinformation, where COVID-19 is concerned, costs lives; if social media is to survive in a post-pandemic world, it must regain the public’s trust and radically change the way it operates.

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