Consider your sources.
It's an old saying, but in the age of the Internet it's perhaps more relevant now than ever before.
Depending on where you look, a wealth of information or misinformation is at your fingertips – and often facts get lost in a sea of online opinion, where everybody's an armchair expert.
As the COVID-19 pandemic has progressed, masks have been touted by some as a way to save lives and by others as a way to control society; conspiracy theories about the origins of this virus have gone mainstream; and everyone has their own opinion on whether Canada's various safety precautions have gone too far or not far enough.
The pandemic goes hand-in-hand with what one University of Alberta researcher is calling an 'infodemic'. Timothy Caulfield, a health law professor famous for taking on pseudo-science, told the Gazette recently the misinformation being spread about COVID-19 isn't just harmful – it can prove deadly.
"Research tells us that if the information environment is really chaotic, people may be less likely to follow advice. It might have an adverse impact on the degree of trust individuals have in our public health agency and other important institutions. It can do a lot of harm," Caulfield said.
That bears out in recent studies on the spread and effect of misinformation. On Aug. 4, the National Post's Jillian Kestler-D'Amours wrote about a recent McGill study that found a correlation between how much someone relies on social media for information and how much they are exposed to and believe misinformation; as well as a Carleton University study that found nearly half of Canadians believe at least one of four unfounded COVID-19 theories.
But although social media is the vehicle for much of this information, the responsibility for sharing and perpetuating it falls to the individual – especially those in charge or who have a large audience.
The Globe and Mail recently pointed out COVID-19 misinformation coming from U.S. President Donald Trump, who retweeted a video claiming hydroxychloroquine could cure the virus. That isn't true, of course, but by the time social media networks moved to pull down his post, more than 20 million people had seen it.
Likewise, anti-mask posts have circulated even in St. Albert's own online networks, touting claims from unnamed "professionals" that masks don't do the job we expect of them.
The infodemic doesn't start or stop with the pandemic, however. Public embracing of misinformation is a trend that has been building for a long time, elevated by wilful ignorance. As recently as last week, a poll from Abacus Data showed less than half of Canadians had been closely following the WE Charity scandal that's rocking our federal government, and 14 per cent were unaware of it altogether.
Unfortunately, there's no all-out cure for this blind sharing and resharing of inaccurate and misleading posts online. But the effects of this infodemic can be mitigated by taking the time to consider the validity and expertise of a source. The less unsourced or falsely sourced information being shared, the less we will find ourselves in a crisis of misinformation.