Spotting misinformation about COVID-19

Sophomore Nadav Ziv explains the kinds of falsehoods that are spreading about the deadly virus and offers tips for identifying credible information online.

As the coronavirus pandemic continues to spread across the globe, staying informed is crucial to slowing its spread and maintaining public health. But in the age of the Internet, how does one identify misinformation?

Nadav Ziv, ’22, has conducted extensive research on the spread of falsehoods and how to identify credible research online. (Image credit: Courtesy Nadav Ziv)

According to Nadav Ziv, ’22, we’re all susceptible to believing falsehoods. Ziv, who studies international relations, has worked with Stanford faculty to conduct research and written articles on the topic. He is an opinion columnist for the Stanford Daily and has co-written pieces for the New York Times and, most recently, Time magazine with Sam Wineburg, the Margaret Jacks Professor of Education at Stanford and the founder of the Stanford History Education Group (SHEG). In their article, Ziv and Wineburg write about widespread misinformation around coronavirus and explain how to distinguish between reliable and unreliable sources.

“The coronavirus pandemic is a global public health crisis, and it’s essential that we empower people to identify the misinformation that’s spreading about it,” Ziv said. “Tackling societal problems depends on people’s ability to differentiate between good and bad information online. I’m grateful for Professor Wineburg’s mentorship as SHEG tries to do its part to address this crisis.”

In this Q&A, Ziv shares more detail about the problem, suggests where to find credible information and offers tips for spotting falsehoods.


How widespread is misinformation about COVID-19?

It’s tough to quantify because of the pace at which information moves, but we know that hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people around the world are seeing misinformation about coronavirus. It’s always important to know how to identify whether a source is credible, but it’s particularly crucial for content related to public health.


What are some examples of misinformation about COVID-19?

In our article, we write about a Facebook post that falsely claims that coronavirus “hates the sun” and can be prevented by taking “a few sips of water every 15 minutes” – fabrications that were partly attributed to Stanford. There are also false claims going around that black people don’t get coronavirus or aren’t as negatively impacted by it. Misinformation about coronavirus is out there and often pretends to be based on medical expertise. On the internet, however, it’s easy for bad actors to portray themselves as someone they’re not.


What most concerns you about misinformation around COVID-19?

I’m especially worried that people who believe the misinformation may not take real preventive measures, like washing their hands or social distancing, as seriously.


What tips can you offer for spotting misinformation?

The most important thing you can do when evaluating information online is to leave the site you’re on and turn to the broader web. Open a new tab and see what credible sources have to say. This is called “reading laterally.”

Second, use “click restraint.” You shouldn’t automatically click the first link in your search result because it will often be to the organization you’re trying to investigate. Read the first two sentences under each link and make intelligent choices about which ones to open. This will ultimately save you time.

Lastly, consider the source. Think about what steps they take to ensure the accuracy of the information they report. Many news organizations have rigorous fact-checking operations and processes to correct mistakes.


Can you recommend sources that offer credible information about COVID-19?

There’s a lot of good information out there. The Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization are a safe bet. News organizations such as the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and ProPublica, as well as research institutions and universities like Stanford, invest heavily to ensure they share accurate information.


Are there demographics that are more susceptible to misinformation, or “fake news,” online?

No. There’s often a perception that digital natives – people who have grown up with the internet – are better at interpreting information on their devices. But studies show that this is not true. Everyone struggles to evaluate the credibility of information online, no matter how smart they are. As Professor Wineburg and I wrote in Time, “Hubris is the enemy of fact-checking.”