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5 Ways to Avoid COVID-19 Misinformation

covid-19 misinformation

 Brianna Gilmartin / Verywell

Key Takeaways

  • The spread of medical misinformation and rumors during the COVID-19 pandemic is a medical and public health issue. 
  • Hundreds have died from following the advice of online health hoaxes.
  • The best way to vet the validity of a story is to look for evidence, research the source, and dissolve any personal biases.  

It starts with a post.

Bask in sunlight or bathe in snow to protect yourself from COVID-19. Consume more alcohol or ingest some bleach to ward off the virus. Ditch the masks: they will kill you before COVID-19 does. Besides, you’ll be fine—you’re young and healthy, and this virus only preys on the old and obese.

But take that shot of disinfectant anyway, just in case. 

When spread to enough people, that baseless post evolves and is taken as fact. Misinformation about COVID-19 becomes its own sort of pandemic.

Health hoaxes and internet rumors continue to confound the scientific community, standing as a barrier to public health protocols and containment agendas. 

“From conspiracy theories about masks to unproven treatments to fake claims about death certificates, medical myths have plagued us throughout the entire COVID-19 pandemic,” Alok Patel, MD, a pediatrician and ABC News special correspondent based in San Francisco, California, tells Verywell. “Many healthcare professionals, including myself, have had to spend countless hours debunking claims, begging people to wear masks, physically distance, and take this pandemic seriously, when in reality, we should just be focusing on our jobs. People want accurate information and I will happily spend the time to vet online content—I just simply wish I didn’t have to and that the pseudoscience charlatans would shut up.”

Alok Patel, MD

People want accurate information and I will happily spend the time to vet online content—I just simply wish I didn’t have to.

— Alok Patel, MD

Narratives about COVID-19 are being written by people who don’t have the authority to hold the pen. An article published in The American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene (ASTMH) in August found 2,311 reports of rumors related to COVID-19 written in 25 languages and spread across 87 countries.

The World Health Organization (WHO) calls this overload of information an "infodemic." WHO is working closely with social media companies to flag false posts and launching campaigns to spotlight accurate information.

Still, even WHO can be drowned out by messages falsely promising healing and health. Sometimes the intentions are innocuous, other times, they are more nefarious—like attempting to profit from the pandemic.

“Anyone online trying to sell you something is likely spreading misinformation and fear-mongering," Patel says. "Want an example? All the people selling 'mineral supplements,' 'detox juices,' or even 'colloidal silver toothpaste' in an effort to prevent or treat coronavirus are peddling nonsense."

In Iran, social media messages claiming that methanol alcohol cured coronavirus led to hundreds of deaths across the nation. In Arizona, a couple consumed chloroquine phosphate to prevent COVID-19 after President Trump touted the benefits of hydroxychloroquine at a daily briefing in March. The husband died shortly after. In total, the ASTMH study says 800 or more deaths have likely occurred because of COVID-19 myths regarding treatment and prevention.

“When people hear or read about unproven remedies or treatments and they’re desperate for some optimism, it’s a set-up for disaster,” Patel says. “The ramifications, unfortunately, are devastating. There are multiple reports of people, hospitalized, who openly expressed regret for not taking the pandemic seriously or not wearing a mask—or thinking they weren’t at risk. I can only speculate how many deaths could have been prevented had people worn masks, physically distanced, and not listened to the bogus reports that ‘the pandemic is a hoax.’”

To prevent yourself from falling for COVID-19 misinformation or pursuing an unsafe remedy, consider the following tips.

Disengage From the Emotion of the Information 

Many rumors about COVID-19 target your emotions, especially when they're what you want to hear.

“Many people are scared, have ‘quarantine fatigue,’ and are ready for hope and answers," Patel says. "People often overlook logic and data in their quest to find answers. And people online know this and prey on the vulnerable and thrive in our current divided atmosphere."

If the information seems too good to be true, it probably is.

“Once a post emotionally draws you in, by either frightening you or reassuring you, it’s harder to step away," Gail Saltz, PhD, associate professor of psychiatry at the New York-Presbyterian Hospital, Weill-Cornell Medical College, tells Verywell. "This is why it’s better to step away and make an appointment with an appropriate professional.”

To prevent the spread of emotionally-charged, inaccurate information, the United Nations recently launched a platform called Pause, which encourages users to pause before sharing COVID-19 information online. 

Check the Source

You can determine the validity of information, in part, by looking at who is providing it.

“People need to pay extra attention to the source of the information they’re reading, whether it’s a social media post, a blog article, or a headline," Patel says. "Look to see if the author is a credible source, affiliated with a healthcare or public health organization, and/or appropriately citing healthcare, science, and public health professionals."

For example, Patel says a viral video from July could have been instantly invalidated if people had checked its source.

The video, posted by a group called “America’s Frontline Doctors,” made waves when it announced that there had been a cure for coronavirus all along (hydroxychloroquine, which the FDA deemed an ineffective COVID-19 treatment in June) and that it had been concealed from the public.  

The video was shared millions of times before it was removed.

“People simply needed to do their own research and look up the ‘physicians’ involved in the video," Patel says. "First of all, the group had ties to a conservative political party, several physicians had a history of promoting unvalidated treatments, and some had issues with their credentialing. Everything about it was shady from the start.”

Patel says the off-kilter beliefs of one of the physicians in the video were a major red flag.

“The fact that one of the speakers, Dr. Stella Immanuel, believes alien DNA is used in American medicine and demon sperm is actually a thing, should’ve squashed any ounce of credibility the group may have had," he says. 

If you’re struggling with verifying your source, Saltz recommends vetting new information through trusted academic resources such as the National Institute of Health and the Johns Hopkins University Medical Center. To help explain the influx of evolving information, the United Nations launched “Verified,” a platform that aims to debunk COVID-19 myths and serve as a reliable resource.

“The best way to get reliable, factual medical advice is to consult with a well-trained expert with direct [COVID-19] experience,” Saltz, who is also the host of the iHeartMedia Personology podcast, says. “People often use Google because it’s easy, immediate, free, and makes them feel like they are the expert. Unfortunately, it does leave you open to misinformation and myths. If you stop there, you may never get the correct information.”

Gail Saltz, PhD

People often use Google because it’s easy, immediate, free, and makes them feel like they are the expert. Unfortunately, it does leave you open to misinformation and myths.

— Gail Saltz, PhD

Evaluate Your Own Bias

It's human nature to dismiss information that contradicts our beliefs and only latch onto content that supports them. This is a form of cognitive bias known as confirmation bias, which is a distorted way of viewing the world through what we believe to be true. 

“Many people, if not most, have a cultural, political, religious, or personal bias when they come across content," Patel says. "Oftentimes, it’s an unconscious bias. This is why people should take the time to carefully check content to ensure it’s validated."

To overcome confirmation bias, ask questions. Visit new channels. According to Patel, dissolving long-held beliefs may allow you to digest new data properly and prevent you from spreading inaccurate information. 

Get the Full Context

To separate fact from fiction, Saltz says it’s important to note that sometimes the information you see may be taken out of context, only partially right, anecdotal, or opinion-based.  

Evidence of this misinterpretation of data was clear after an August Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) update regarding COVID-19 death certificates. The CDC noted that "for 6% of the deaths, COVID-19 was the only cause mentioned."

However, many people misinterpreted the statement. In a since-removed Tweet, President Trump said that "the CDC quietly updated the Covid number to admit that only 6% of all the 153,504 deaths recorded actually died from Covid. That’s 9,210 deaths. The other 94% had 2 to 3 other serious illnesses and the overwhelming majority were of very advanced age."

All of those deaths were cause by COVID-19. Those 6% of people just didn't have any other reported health conditions.

“Simply put, people created their own narrative about COVID-19 deaths from a headline, ignored statistics, and the falsehoods went viral," Patel says. "This is the type of real-time misinformation we have to stay on top of and constantly debunk. It would be incredible if our political leaders would help in the process."

Don’t Assume Public Figures Are Always Right 

Don't be swayed by a blue checkmark next to an Instagram or Twitter handle. Just because someone has acquired a large following on a social media platform does not mean they have the authority to speak on medical subjects. Celebrities, public figures, and politicians can fall for the same misinformation traps that we fall into.

“Many people feel very identified with celebrities. They admire them and want to be like them," Saltz says. "Unfortunately, this means they may feel drawn to any advice the celebrity touts, even though the celebrity is not an expert at all. Try to remember: a celebrity is a human being like you and their story or advice is very individual—it’s only about them and their experience—which may have zero application to you and your medical situation."

Patel emphasizes that celebrities, politicians, influencers, and even healthcare professionals can all be compromised by special interests or misinformation. Their opinions shouldn’t be taken as fact.

"When in doubt, double, triple, and quadruple check the sourcing information," Patel says. "Do your own research and remember there’s a difference between facts and opinions.”

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  2. Shokoohi M, Nasiri N, Sharifi H, Baral S, Stranges S. A syndemic of COVID-19 and methanol poisoning in Iran: Time for Iran to consider alcohol use as a public health challenge?. Alcohol. 2020;87:25-27. doi:10.1016/j.alcohol.2020.05.006