Six Tips for Spotting COVID Misinformation

Almost as fast as the COVID-19 pandemic spread around the world, so has misinformation about the infectious disease. 

fake news coronavirus Six Tips for Spotting COVID Misinformation
(Publicity Pod / Flickr)

This tip sheet was originally published by PEN America. It has been republished with permission.

Building Media Literacy Skills During a Pandemic

As the coronavirus pandemic heightens nerves, disinformation—defined as information being spread with the intention to mislead—has found fertile ground. In the United States, text messages encouraged people to stock up on food and supplies in advance of a national quarantine. In Europe and China, a video circulated on WhatsApp and TikTok that appeared to show shoppers mobbing a Dutch supermarket. Both warnings were false, and yet both landed in countless inboxes and feeds.

While those messages may have been intended to cause panic, there’s also been earnest confusion—misinformation, rather than disinformation. One rumor said a salt water rinse could stop the virus. Another Facebook post claimed scientists had already found a vaccine. People may have shared them out of benevolence or a desire for hopeful news, but both turned out to be inaccurate.

Whether out of malice or genuine alarm, false stories are continuing to circulate. Here are a few steps you can take to evaluate news stories that are blowing up your feed or finding their way into your DMs.

fake news coronavirus Six Tips for Spotting COVID Misinformation
(Courtesty of PEN America)

1. Distinguish Between News and Opinion

Some stories look like news but are actually opinion pieces. Is it news? Is it an opinion piece? Before hitting share or forward, consider the type of content first.

2. Question Your Reactions to Things You See Online

Disinformation outlets thrive on engagements—likes and shares—on social media platforms. They’re writing headlines designed to encourage you to disseminate their posts, even if they’re false or misleading. Before taking the bait, question the credibility of everything you see, especially if you get the sense it might spark a sense of alarm in others. That might be the whole point.

3. Check the Credibility of the Source

“Daily Buzz Live” may sound like a legit news site, but there are countless examples of bad actors creating fake news outlets that sound real. Check to see if the source of a story is credible before passing it along to others.


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4. For Health Information, Go to CDC.gov or WHO.int

If you’re looking to find factual information about public health, check first with trusted institutions, like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or the World Health Organization.

5. Fact-Check What You’re Reading

Not sure how true a story is? Run it through Google or another search engine alongside the terms “true,” “false” or “hoax.” Fact-checking websites like Snopes.com and those from trusted news outlets will often surface. You can also check out Annenberg’s FactCheck.org or Duke University’s Reporters’ Lab for more resources.

6. Reverse Image Search

Go pro. If you see an image, try a reverse image search on Google. That photo of panicked grocery shoppers could be real. Or just a scene from a zombie movie. (Learn more about how to search with an image on Google.)

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PEN America, founded in 1922 and headquartered in New York City, is a nonprofit organization that works to defend and celebrate free expression in the United States and worldwide through the advancement of literature and human rights.