In the 18 hours after President Trump publicly mused at a news conference about treating the coronavirus by injecting disinfectants such as bleach and Lysol, 30 calls were made to New York City’s poison control about toxic exposure to household cleaners.
President Trump would later tell the press that his comments were sarcastic, posing them to the reporters in the press room “just to see what would happen.” But by then, the damage had been done. #BleachGate was trending on Twitter.
To some, Trump’s comments seemed to be just the latest in the humourous stream of claims made by the president. Others clung to the comment as a sliver of hope that a cure might be found for the virus that has killed nearly 70,000 people in the United States alone. And even a few tried it for themselves.
In a pandemic, all three responses make sense.
“When information is uncertain and anxiety is high, the natural response for people is to try to ‘resolve’ that uncertainty and anxiety. In other words, to figure out what is going on and what they should do about it,” Kate Starbird, a crisis informatics researcher and professor at the University of Washington wrote for OneZero.
Starbird writes that when we turn to history, the biggest hurdle communities faced during times of crisis was inadquate access to information. Today, our challenge is the opposite, yet equally as lethal. We have too much information available to us, making it difficult for us to know what — and even who — to trust.
Fighting False Information
“Trumptini” recipes may trigger a laugh on Instagram, but their perpetual sharing reflects a deeper cynicism among the American public — not only toward the administration, but toward fellow citizens. I myself have felt it, throwing my hands up at a shared video on my Facebook feed claiming that taking a CrossFit class would prevent me from getting the virus.
In my first job with Sojourners, one of my primary responsibilities was fact-checking the magazine, confirming the spelling of names and ensuring the accuracy of data and claims. It was, at times, a tedious job of poring through police records and historical documents to find dates and figures. But speaking truth is a pillar of the Christian faith — and in this moment, knowing how to sift through information is a critical skill.
In 2018, Pew Research found that roughly a quarter of surveyed Americans got most or all of the questions wrong when asked to distinguish between five factual statements and five opinion statements. In a pandemic, an inability to discern can cause more than embarrassment.
In March, an Arizona man died after he and his wife ingested a fish tank cleaner with the same active ingredient as chloroquine, an anti-malaria drug Trump said in a televised briefing showed “ very, very encouraging results” when used to treat the virus.
“We were afraid of getting sick,” the man’s wife later told NBC News.
Many journalists, newspapers, and nonprofits have taken it upon themselves to sift through the onslaught of claims stemming from the current administration as well as other sources.
Politifact, perhaps best known for their “Pants on Fire!” rating system used to evaluate claims made by politicians, has amped up production to meet the needs of the public.
The #CoronaVirusFacts Alliance led by the International Fact-Checking Network at the Poynter Institute has published more than 3,500 fact-checks from more than 70 countries since their launch in January.
“During a pandemic, combating mis/disinformation is crucial to public health,” the alliance writes. “Just like the virus itself, rumors and falsehoods flow over borders, causing what is now called a universal infodemic.”
Doing the Work
In this infodemic, Christians cannot sit idly by.
If love “rejoices in the truth,” as is said in the book of Corinthians, then this is the moment to buckle “belts of truth” (Ephesians 6:14) and speak that truth to power.
The good news is that you don’t need to be a professional fact-checker to ensure you’re not spreading potentially harmful information to your social networks.
The first thing Starbird recommends is getting in touch with how the information makes us feel. Anger, grief, and anxiety can spur us to share information without knowing its origin (sometimes, without even reading the full article ourselves). Taking a deep breath before we click “send” can prevent that information from circulating at a rapid rate.
Next, we can learn to practice “lateral reading,” which the Civic Online Reasoning program developed by the Stanford History Education Group and MediaWise, defines as “leaving the webpage and opening a new browser tab to see what trusted websites say about the unknown source.”
Verifying information by going to external sources can help determine whether the information is legitimate. It can also give insight as to who is behind the information, which can provide additional clues to bias and accuracy.
Lastly, it’s important to be forgiving of yourself and others who are navigating this information while trying to take measures to protect themselves and their families.
In an NPR comic, two cats have a conversation about spreading false information.
“If I got this wrong, what other lies have I spread?” one cat confesses to the other.
“Don’t worry, quarantine pal! That’s a perfectly normal response right now,” the other cat responds.
We all want to share information that we believe may help our family, friends, and community. But it’s critical that we verify that the information is true before we do so.
“If someone you know is spreading misinformation, try starting a private conversation by assuming best intentions,” the cat in the comic says. “The truth is important, but so is taking care of each other right now.”
I encourage you to do the work — and offer grace — with your own family, friends, and faith communities, kindly and factually pushing back against false information circulated by our social networks, and even our religious leaders.
In fighting against false information, we will create space for truth to lead the way.