How a Crisis Researcher Makes Sense of Covid-19 Misinformation
Collective sensemaking during times of uncertainty and anxiety
Many of us are struggling to absorb the news about the novel coronavirus, the virus that causes Covid-19. Lives have been lost. People are gravely ill. Others have been quarantined for weeks. The disease appears to be spreading in numerous countries, including here in the United States. We are facing what has now been labeled as a global pandemic. And many of us are trying to figure out what actions to take to protect ourselves, our families, and our communities.
Our information feeds, from television sets, internet searches, and social media, provide continuous updates about the unfolding crisis — some of them accurate, some of them seemingly less so. Though crisis events like this one have always been times when rumors and misinformation spread, the problem seems especially acute now, with the rise of the internet, the widespread use of social media, and the pervasive politicization of just about everything.
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organization (WHO), noted in a February 15 address that we are fighting not only an epidemic but also what he called an infodemic. And indeed, numerous cases of false information about the virus are already spreading online — sometimes intentionally, sometimes not. But perhaps worse than that, it is increasingly difficult for us to figure out which information we should trust.
As a person trying to understand the situation and make the best decisions for my family and my community, I am struggling with this myself. I have been reflecting upon the Covid-19 crisis and the parallel infodemic from two very different perspectives: as a researcher of crisis informatics and as a person living in an affected area (Seattle) with family members in vulnerable groups. There’s a tension between these different perspectives, which motivated me to write this post.
When information is uncertain and anxiety is high, the natural response for people is to try to “resolve” that uncertainty and anxiety.