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A guide to overcoming COVID-19 misinformation

If any group understands the toll misinformation can take on the public understanding of science, it’s climate scientists. For years, they have been trying to convey the findings from a ceaseless stream of studies showing the world is warming, while combating misinterpretations and outright fake news. A similar infodemic—a surplus of information both legitimate and misinformed—now plagues the COVID-19 outbreak.

In the internet era, when research papers are readily available, everyone can become an expert on COVID-19 or climate change. But pundits can also cherry-pick the data that matches their beliefs and seem to speak with authority. These types of personalities appear in traditional media such as television, but their work truly thrives on social and video-streaming platforms. Part of the reason is social media remains largely unregulated, and the attention—the “likes” and engagement—we receive on a post can incentivize us to share.

“It feels like we’ve been living in a world of misinformation for a few decades, but the amplification and reach is out of this world with new platforms,” says Sarah Evanega, the director of Cornell University’s Alliance for Science, an organization dedicated to correcting misconceptions.

And this is also a time of intense partisanship, when people tend to look to their political leaders to help them decide how to think about issues, including science. This reliance on political leanings can make people susceptible to unscientific arguments.

“People say, Well, Europe is opening schools, so why aren’t we opening schools?” or they compare COVID-19 to the flu, says John Cook, a communications expert at George Mason University who studies climate change misinformation. “Those kinds of analogies are very simplistic and misleading.”

For many people, climate change and COVID-19 feel remote, so these seemingly invisible threats create a psychological distance. This can cause people to undervalue the potential danger and make the solutions seem worse than the problem itself.

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