October 2, 2020

In the past 12 hours, there has been a crushing amount of speculation and reactions circulating across social media platforms related to President Donald Trump’s positive coronavirus test. This is a historic moment with emotions running high and it’s important to take a step back, take a breath and chill for a minute before sharing anything you see on social media.

Below you’ll find some tips from The Poynter Institute’s MediaWise team, a nonprofit, nonpartisan digital media literacy initiative for Americans of all ages. You can find more tips and video versions of these tips on Twitter and Instagram.

No. 1: How to consume breaking news

Remember that this is a developing, breaking news story and just like with any other story unfolding in real time on social media, it’s important to wait to reshare information until you see it confirmed by multiple sources — at least 3-4 reliable sources or outlets in this case. The more sources you read, the better you’ll understand the facts and the full scope of the story. Social media’s short-form format is terrible for getting full context on any given story and this one is no exception.

It’s also good practice to seek out primary sources including updates from the official White House and related official accounts or former Vice President Joe Biden and his related verified official accounts. The little blue checkmark next to account names indicates that the account holder has been verified by the platform, that they are who they say they are.

But it’s also important to compare that information with what several reliable news outlets are reporting. Read stories from outlets across the political spectrum if you can to gain an even deeper perspective.

No. 2: Stay focused on confirmed information

There is a growing mountain of conjecture conversation and stories about “what ifs” — don’t engage with them. Instead, focus on the information available and confirmed by multiple, reliable outlets now and updates rooted in facts as they become available. Doomscrolling through nightmare scenarios will not be beneficial to you or the people who read the content you share.

Frankly, today is not a bad day to take a break from social media. Read a few full news stories tomorrow, top to bottom, not just the headlines to get the latest news.

No. 3: Check your emotions

If you can’t stay away and dive into your social feeds today — be aware of your emotional reactions as you scroll. If a post triggers a strong emotional reaction, that’s a sign of potential misinformation. This is a heated story, but stop and think about what you read before sharing. Is it based on facts? How do you know? #ThinkBeforeYouShare (more on this later).

No. 4: Watch out for imposter accounts

With so much emotion tied up in this news about President Trump and the future of the nation, and our democracy already pretty fragile as it is, the timelines of American social media users are primed for an attack by foreign bad actors.

Be on the lookout for imposter accounts from abroad — those are fake social media accounts created to look like they are actually American citizens. Key indicators: a low follower count, recently created accounts, posting constant divisive language, sometimes repeating the same language you’ll see being posted by other accounts and using an exorbitant number of hashtags to try to glom onto any trending topic.

Disinformation campaigns from abroad are searching for moments like this and ready to fan the flames on a volatile situation by posting incendiary commentary meant to upset you and rile you up and add to the chaos — so be on high alert.

No. 5: Watch out for conspiracy theories

Be aware of conspiracy theories and conspiracy-like content. Conspiracy theorists go hog wild with stories like this — the theories can sound wild and nutty but are also dangerous with more and more people falling for these falsehoods. Don’t let speculation that isn’t rooted in fact influence your decisions, especially when it comes to voting in the upcoming election.

How can you sniff out conspiracy theories and fact-check other types of potential misinformation you’re seeing online?

We recommend making an effort to answer these three questions from Stanford History Education Group, which were developed after studying how professional fact-checkers do their jobs:

  1. Who is behind the information?
  2. What is the evidence?
  3. What are other sources saying?

This is sort of like a boiled down, “who, what, where, when, why, how,” Journalism 101 lesson boiled down into three questions. If you take a few minutes to look at the account profile of whoever posted something that made you upset or you are a bit suspicious of, that’s a great first step and can have a very positive impact on the information ecosystem.

Every social post you choose to engage with has the potential to go viral. Chris Wetherell, the developer who created the retweet button on Twitter, once told BuzzFeed News that it was like handing “a 4-year-old a loaded weapon.”

We all need to make an effort to keep the peace right now online. That includes fact-checking information before you share it. You have the power to stop misinformation from going viral — it’s in your hands.

For more tips on handling coronavirus misinformation, watch this PSA from the MediaWise team.

Katy Byron is the editor and program manager of Poynter’s MediaWise, a nonprofit project teaching millions of Americans how to sort fact from fiction online. Reach her at kbyron@poynter.org.

Abby Vervaeke is an intern at MediaWise and the managing editor of The Simmons Voice, the only student-run newspaper at Simmons University. Find her on Twitter at @abbyjvervaeke.

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Katy Byron is the editor and program manager of Poynter’s MediaWise, a non-profit project teaching millions of Americans how to sort fact from fiction online.…
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