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Coronavirus crisis has social media ‘ripe for spread of misinformation’

A cleaning crew leaving Kirkland's Life Care Center. (Getty Images)

The spread of coronavirus has occurred alongside a similarly viral spread of misinformation across all of social media.

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“We’re actually in this really ripe situation not only to spread rumors — which are a natural thing that happens in crisis events — but also to be vulnerable to misinformation and intentional disinformation as well,” said Dr. Kate Starbird, former Seattle Storm star and the founder of the University of Washington’s Center an Informed Public.

That’s largely due to the fluid nature of a pandemic, and the free flow of information that floods social media as new developments occur.

More than that, it’s also a scenario that’s not at all uncommon during most crises.

“What we’ve known even before social media about how we respond to crisis events is that there’s a lot of uncertainty — we don’t really know what’s going on and the best information changes day to day, and so that’s kind of evolving,” Starbird detailed.

That’s further fueled by “high anxiety and high uncertainty,” as many of us begin to worry about our health, the health of our families, our communities, and sweeping effects on the economy.

But even while social media can be a troubling source of misinformation in times of crisis, it can also be a useful platform for taking in useful facts and feedback.

“In those conditions, what we want to do as people is to resolve that uncertainty and that anxiety, and we do that by coming together and trying to talk to each other and get information, and come up with explanations for what’s going on that help us understand the situation better,” said Starbird.

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In the midst of all this, we’ve seen platforms take stringent actions to limit the flow of disinformation. That can be useful during something like a global pandemic, but it’s also something Starbird notes can be a slippery slope toward clamping down on all discourse once a crisis ends.

“There really is this point when misinformation is going viral because of the way the platform works — I think that’s a time when when they should feel the responsibility to dampen that that spread,” she described. “But I just want them to be thoughtful about what it means to take action in this emergency situation, and how that could be rolled back when we get back into more normal times.”

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