11 ways to distinguish real from fake pandemic news

by Brian on September 26, 2021

in Covid-19,In the News,Politics,Science

The response to my column, “The narcissism of anti-vaxxers” (August 27, 2021) came fast and furious – and was not particularly kind. I’ll spare you the brunt of the comments, except for one in particular that has stuck with me.

Fake news of a different kind

“We have no way to know what is truly â€˜false’ and what is truly ‘true,’” the letter writer stated, referring to my rant against science skeptics who deny the efficacy of the vaccines. “Anyone can say anything they want. Just because a website says something is false doesn’t make it false. Who knows who’s paying them off?”

Really? Is there no way to differentiate between truth and falsehoods in today’s hyper-polarized media environment?

For those of us trying desperately to navigate the astonishing amount of pandemic-related breaking news, I’ve compiled an 11-point guide to becoming a better media consumer. My hope is that this can help contain the plague of medical antagonism that is driving communities, friends and families apart.

1. Check the domain. Is an article posted on a site like “abcnews.com.co?” Sites peddling falsehoods often add “co” at the end. The Boston Tribune (now shut down) sounded serious but only listed a Gmail address as a contact. 

2. Does a news item seem too good to be true? Is it from a site you’ve never heard of? Do a Google search for the same article and see if any mainstream news sites come up. Or explore other articles on the same site – if any of them seem outright fabricated (“Are globalists controlling the weather to cause agro-terrorism?” is one I found), that’s a sign that you should steer clear. 

3. Does an article use provocative language? Any site or article that calls Covid-19 “the flu” has an agenda. A site using all caps in headlines (“REVEALED!” “GENOCIDE” “DEAD”) should immediately be suspect. Read past the clickbait; headlines are often written to bring in revenue and may bear little resemblance to the story itself.

4. Does a news item reference a study that has since been clarified or debunked? That’s the case with Dr. Ryan Cole, a prominent Covid anti-vaxxer in Idaho who, in a widely viewed viral video, cites a 2018 paper that he says claims, pre-Covid, that mRNA vaccines cause cancer and auto-immune diseases. The author of the paper subsequently responded to Cole, noting that the research he conducted does not support such claims at all. 

5. Is there a financial incentive? Dr. Sherri Tenpenny, an Ohio-based osteopath, runs webinars on why people “should not take the shot.” The cost: $165. Her in-person “Freedom Crusade” event in August had a ticket price of $57. The IRS says she owes more than $500,000 in back taxes. After Tenpenny fraudulently claimed that Covid-19 vaccines “magnetize” recipients, YouTube banned her. 

6. Do not pay attention to what celebrities think about science or public health. When talk show host Joe Rogen contracted Covid, he claimed that the controversial drug Ivermectin had cured him in a matter of days. While there are a few small studies supporting the use of Ivermectin for Covid (including one from my own travel medicine doctor, Prof. Eli Schwartz, in Israel), the overwhelming majority of epidemiologists and health organizations have cautioned against its use.

7. Similarly, don’t listen to politicians pontificating on stuff they don’t understand. U.S. Senator Rand Paul, an ophthalmologist, not an epidemiologist by training, implored in a recent video, “It’s time for us to resist. They can’t arrest all of us. We don’t have to accept the mandates, lockdowns and harmful policies of the petty tyrants and bureaucrats.” Like Sherri Tenpenny, Rand was suspended from YouTube for his Covid militancy.

8. Watch out for wild, over-the-top claims. Ryan Cole insists that vaccines, social distancing and masks are all unnecessary. All you need is Vitamin D, which he says can decrease the risk of hospitalization for Covid-19 by a whopping 90%. That sounds wonderful and, midway through the pandemic, my own doctor’s office sent out an email recommending that all their patients begin taking Vitamin D as a preventative. But repeated studies haven’t backed up Vitamin D as a Covid therapy. I trust the Mayo Clinic over Ryan Cole.

9. Check your biases. Do you want what you’re reading to be true because it agrees with what you already believe or what you want to happen? Or do you want it to be false because it’s about someone or something you love or have voted for? 

10. Use online fact-checking tools. FactCheck.org (from the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center) and NewsGuard can help determine if a site or story is legit. The latter features an interactive quiz to test your Covid myth-busting prowess. For example, “Based solely on domain names, can you tell which of the following sites – Vaccines.gov, VaccineImpact.com, Immunize.org or ScientificAmerican.com – is an unreliable source?” (It’s VaccineImpact.) 

11. Finally, did a story make you angry? Then it was probably designed that way (and likely not true). If you’re not sure something is real, absolutely never, ever share it on social media – every comment or re-tweet is essentially a thumbs up for Internet algorithms to amplify the message. 

It’s immensely frustrating to have to look beyond the headlines all the time to figure out what’s real and what’s not these days. Being on guard doesn’t make for pleasant media consumption. But when confronted by what journalist and political scientist David Rothkopf has dubbed an “infodemic,” we all have to step up our game – or risk getting sent to a time-out or, worse, a round of sudden death.

I originally tried to help sort fact from fiction for The Jerusalem Post.

Thanks to some of the great sources with lists on how to spot fake (pandemic) news including: Cornell University and NPR’s On the Media.

Photo by Kajetan Sumila on Unsplash

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