How to fight coronavirus misinformation on social media

Social media is in a panic right now.

As of this writing, four of the five most trending topics on Twitter have to do with coronavirus. Within the past 24 hours, nearly 550,000 tweets contain the hashtag #CoronavirusPandemic. On LinkedIn, the story is similar. Four of the top five trending news is likewise about coronavirus. A brief look over at Google News, and everything on the front page is also about coronavirus.

The losing war against misinformation

This is all by design. Just as malignant as coronavirus is misinformation about it. Social networks are therefore taking a proactive approach. They want to make it as easy as possible for their users to receive news from reputable sources. Editors are curating breaking news from the World Health Organization, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and UNICEF.

But is it working? Unfortunately, no. Misinformation is still spreading like wildfire. While expert opinion is important, there’s one source for news that people find more trustworthy: friends and family.

Unfortunately, friends and family are more likely to spread misinformation.

Social Media’s intrinsic bias

There’s no way around this. Social media isn’t made for experts to share their expertise with the masses. On social media, politicians, scientists, and doctors aren’t usually privileged as an information source.

This is because social networks like Facebook value people that you know over people that you don’t. If a close friend of yours has an opinion about coronavirus, you are more likely to hear it than you are to hear and opinion from the executive director of the WHO.

And why not? You talk to your friends far more often than you talk to bureaucrats. Of course, you’re bound to trust them more. The problem is, maybe you shouldn’t trust them about everything.

Social networks may try to tweak their algorithms to provide more weight to expert opinions, but after decades of privileging close contacts, this can’t suddenly be changed with a flick of the switch. Most of us have been trained from birth to value the opinions of friends and family over opinions of strangers — even if a stranger may be an expert in their field.

Is there a way to overcome this bias?

It’s time that we recognized that, on social media, a reputable source is much different from a trusted source.

Politicians, scientists, and doctors are all reputable sources. They are all experts in their field, and they have the peer-reviewed credentials to back it up. Their opinions should be given more weight.

But in terms of trust? It’s up to us, John & Jane Q. Public, to give these expert opinions weight. Expert opinions are trustworthy insomuch that we signal trust in them. To friends and family, we are a trusted source when it comes to coronavirus news.

So how can we all fight misinformation about coronavirus on social media? By spreading the word about expert opinions. When you see news from a reputable source, share it!

By showing that you trust the experts, you are telling friends and family that they, too, should trust the experts.