This illustration, created at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), reveals ultrastructural morphology exhibited by coronaviruses. Credit: Alissa Eckert, MS; Dan Higgins, MAM

Coronavirus resources: CDC on the coronavirusOregon Health Authority resourcesWashington County resourcesOregonian reporting on the coronavirusOPB glossary of coronavirus termsNYTimes free reporting on the coronavirus

Good grief, Washington County.

The spread of misinformation about the 2020 coronavirus pandemic, described by the World Health Organization (WHO) as an “infodemic,” is growing in northwestern Oregon.

There is no way to quantify just how many people believe false information online, but like all towns, cities, counties, and nations, people who are part of online communities are succumbing to the blazing spread of what is actual, not professed, fake news.

Trying to keep up with the public’s thirst for truth about COVID-19, websites like Snopes.com, FactCheck.org, and the WHO’s own Mythbusters webpage aim to assess, dispel, and stop the spread of false information about the virus -- false info that has proven to be hazardous when believed.  

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It’s long been observed that social media users tend to post and spread information that further bolsters their individual beliefs, often those that are political in nature. And it’s safe to say that most people don’t intentionally share information they read on a trusted friend’s social media page, or in a friend’s response to someone’s post, that could prove to be fatal.

Yet it's also nearly impossible to convince people on social media that the information they are sharing or posting is outright fake, false, or at the very least misleading.

False information on social media and on websites designed to resemble long-operating media outlets remain difficult for many to recognize. 

A 2019 study by the Pew Research Center, which calls itself a “nonpartisan fact tank” that conducts demographic research, data-driven social science research, public opinion polling, and content analysis, finds many Americans believe “the creation and spread of made-up news and information is [sic] causing significant harm to the nation and needs to be stopped.”

It looked like internet users would wise up following the 2016 presidential election when countless news stories were published citing official U.S. government representatives and agencies as sources, as well as a report issued by the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, explaining to Americans how social media was, is, and will again be used surreptitiously by foreign actors and inimical groups inside the U.S. with the goal of sowing discord and distrust into American politics and society.

Instead, the big five social media sites -- Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, and TikTok -- are now themselves full-blown contagions of fake news, blatant misinformation, and false reports about COVID-19, as well as other topics that tend to be political in nature. 

As foreign and domestic adversaries of the U.S. government and population become more and more sophisticated with their means of presenting fake news and false information, it is now more important than ever to learn how to distinguish what’s fake from what information and sources are reliable, legitimate news.

Here are some tips on how to discern what’s real from what’s fake or false.

Does the reported news contain a link to a reputable source?

Information presented as news, especially social media posts, from a source you are not familiar with which includes an image or a photo that links back to a realistic-looking website should raise a red flag with every reader. 

When trying to determine whether the information you’re seeing or reading comes from a reliable source, it’s suggested to use the “SIFT” method (stop, investigate, find, trace), created in 2019 by Michael Caulfield, a director of networked and blended learning at Washington State University-Vancouver.

SIFT-ing calls for you to stop and determine if the information you’re reading comes from a reputable source or a website that is well-attuned to the public eye; to investigate the source of the information by paying attention to the writer’s expertise and the website’s agenda; to use a search engine to find out if the information is widely available from other sources and if they each come to a similar consensus; and to determine if you can trace all quotes, claims, and media presented in the social media or website post in question back to its original source.

Does the information come from a credible publisher?

Be wary of domain names that resemble well-known websites and media outlets, such as cbs.news.com.co or ny-times.org.

Also, question if the level of writing meets common-sense journalistic standards. Does it provide links to the original source material? Does it include interviews with sources from well-known organizations whose contact information is readily available online?

Finally, determine the publication’s point-of-view by reading the About Us page. If the About Us page is confusing, does not discuss the site’s objective as a media outlet, or doesn’t provide the names of the publishers and editors, it is most certainly fake or satirical in nature.

Read the entire story, not just the headline. 

Headlines that seem too outrageous to be true or misleading are used to lure readers to a website in order to -- you guessed it -- generate revenue from clicks. This is what’s commonly referred to as “clickbait.”

Read the whole story to see if the writer launches into another topic than the posted headline, or if he or she only mentions the topic of the headline in passing.

You can also copy and paste the headline into the Google search bar to see if any other reputable news sites or social media pages cover the same topic. This is also a way to tell if the information you’re reading was posted by imitating a story published by a known media outlet and then re-writing it with “spin."

Use critical thinking skills to determine if what you’re reading is true. 

Anytime you come across a story from a source that you’ve never heard of, do a little investigating. Are you reading someone’s personal blog that looks like an established media outlet? Were you lured into a clickbait site? Are you reading a social media post from a person you trust but who does not have expertise in the matter?

Does the person who made the social media post (in the case of COVID-19) claim that they learned the information from “a medical professional,” or a family member who is a doctor or nurse, or from a friend who has a friend or family member who caught the virus? Again, type the information you are reading in Google’s search bar and see if it turns up similar information from credible sources that backs up the original claim.

If you still find yourself questioning whether the news article or social media post you’re reading is providing reliable information, go to the experts and search Snopes.com, FactCheck.org or PolitiFact.com

By the way, the aforementioned Pew Research Center study says that 52 percent of adult Americans get their news solely through Facebook. So, please, do your part in helping to stop the spread of the COVID-19 “infodemic” by doing a little research before sharing with others what you see on social media.