As the coronavirus spreads, Americans have to flatten the misinformation curve too

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  • The coronavirus outbreak has pushed social-media platforms even closer to the center of America’s information ecosystem.
  • These platforms are straining under a new flood of misinformation, and the public must practice extreme caution when sharing information about this crisis online, write Megan Lamberth and Chris Estep of the Center for a New American Security.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Overnight, Americans have become all too familiar with the call to “flatten the curve” by taking precautionary measures to slow the spread of the deadly coronavirus (COVID-19). Fulfilling individual responsibilities in this unprecedented crisis, however, requires more than social distancing and physical isolation.

Digital interactions on social media platforms are increasing, as people’s physical interactions are primarily restricted. With so many users seeking and sharing information online, the spread of misinformation about the pandemic can overwhelm social platforms, impede the government’s response, and enable bad actors online. Every American must therefore do their part to flatten the misinformation curve.

Anyone can be a carrier of harmful misinformation. Because of this risk, members of the public must devote increased diligence to ensure that the information they share on social media and elsewhere is authentic and contextualized. This responsibility goes beyond merely improved “digital literacy.” All Americans must embrace an attitude of “digital citizenship,” treating online communications with the same level of scrutiny as in-person interactions.

The coronavirus outbreak has seen the simultaneous rise of numerous misinformation strains. Inaccuracies about the origin of the virus and how it spreads have saturated online platforms. Public figures have attempted to gain financial benefit by selling products that falsely purport to fight off the virus.

Rumors have spread rapidly about what actions the US government might take to address the pandemic, including erroneous speculation earlier this week that President Trump was preparing to announce a national lockdown. The sheer speed and scale of these misinformation outbreaks have overwhelmed social media companies responsible for monitoring the platforms that so many are relying on for critical information.

A woman in a mask walks goes through security at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, in Arlington, Virginia March 16, 2020.

Associated Press


Viral misinformation on social media is not the only online threat to emerge in the wake of this crisis. Malicious actors have taken advantage of widespread public health concerns and economic volatility, scamming internet users with hidden malware and phishing attempts.

Even US government agencies charged with responding to the pandemic have been targeted. Last week, Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) computer systems suffered a distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack — an intrusion that, while ultimately unsuccessful, could have hampered the government’s response efforts.

An individual user’s vulnerability to cyber threats and deliberate hacking can deepen when the online environment features untrustworthy information at an enormous scale. Tech companies like Facebook and Twitter will have to continue devoting unprecedented efforts to curbing the spread of harmful misinformation about the virus on their platforms, refining their efforts as new threats emerge.

However, the sheer amount of information — whether accurate, false, or just plain exaggerated — about the pandemic has placed incredible strain on these platforms’ content moderation efforts. While several leading platforms have announced a joint effort to combat coronavirus misinformation, they should adopt a recommendation made last year by our colleague Kara Frederick, and join together in an “enduring disinformation-related consortium,” modeled after the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism as the template.

Alongside these efforts, members of the public must practice diligent and savvy information habits during this crisis.

Well-meaning users who are unsure about the source of a particular piece of information should either take the time to verify its authenticity or refrain from sharing entirely. Beyond practicing digital literacy, every American must recognize their important role as digital citizens in the midst of this pandemic, in addition to following the critical measures necessary to avoid being physical carriers of the virus.

Joshua A. Geltzer and our colleague Carrie Cordero argued this week in The Washington Post for a new form of resilience characterized by social distancing in compliance with guidance from public health experts. Resilience in the COVID-19 age must also, however, feature renewed discernment when it comes to sharing online information about the outbreak.

During times of crisis and uncertainty, human nature compels people to seek solidarity and comfort with one another. A pandemic, however, forces people to do the opposite. This responsibility of digital citizenship will be increasingly essential as social distancing and self-isolation replace physical spaces for community gathering with digital counterparts.

Since 2016, social media platforms and tech companies have experienced considerable scrutiny by policymakers and the general public, driven in part by their missteps in combating the spread of online misinformation. However, the coronavirus outbreak has pushed social media platforms even closer to the epicenter of America’s information ecosystem.

As these platforms strain to answer a new flood of misinformation, members of the public must assume the responsibilities of digital citizenship by practicing extreme caution when sharing information about this crisis online. As deep uncertainty continues in the weeks to come, it is incumbent on all Americans to exercise caution and compassion in their interactions, particularly if those interactions are primarily restricted to the digital world. We each play an integral role in flattening the misinformation curve.

Megan Lamberth is a research assistant for the Technology and National Security program at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) in Washington. Chris Estep is the Communications Specialist at CNAS.

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